Vietnam veterans and family members, as well as families of those who never returned from the war, gathered May 18 in Branson, Mo., to recall their service and honor the fallen as part of an official observance of the Vietnam War.
As the master of ceremonies introduced keynote speaker John Mohler -- Vietnam combat vet, successful business consultant and official representative of the Defense Department’s Vietnam War Commemoration -- Mary Schantag, chairwoman of POW Network, saw looks of concern and disbelief from many in the crowd.
Schantag, who also is an expert on phony war heroes, said the emcee read a portion of Mohler’s biography. “Three Silver Stars, seven Bronze Star Medals for Valor, five Army Commendation Medals for Valor, two Purple Hearts.”
“And that’s when everybody looked at me,” Schantag told Military.com. “He stood up in front of Gold Star mothers who lost their sons, widows who lost their husbands, and he had the nerve to stand up there in front of them with all this. Despicable is not the word.”
After the event, Schantag began going over her notes and records. Not only did she learn Mohler had previously claimed to have the Distinguished Service Cross -- ranked just below the Medal of Honor -- and to have been a Ranger, a Green Beret and given a “battlefield promotion,” but she was shocked to find he had already been found out and reported to the Pentagon in 2006.
“Here he was back on the speakers’ circuit for DoD seven years later,” she said.
Next morning, she confronted Mohler.
“I looked him right in the face and said “I’m going to be your worst nightmare.”
The Defense Department only recently began maintaining an official database of the top three medals for valor, including the Silver Star.
Experts in Army awards and personnel -- among them a background investigator -- said Mohler’s multiple awards for heroism are fraudulent. He should have been prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act rather than hired to represent the DoD at events commemorating the Vietnam War, experts told Military.com.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col Todd Breasseale confirmed Mohler was an intermittent consultant, making him a part-time civil service employee, from October 2012 to June 2013, when he resigned without giving a reason. Breasseale could not say how much Mohler was paid by the Defense Department for his work at that time.
Mohler refused to comment for the story, but his lawyer, William B. Cummings of Alexandria, Va, spoke on his behalf.
Cummings denies his client fabricated anything about his military background or doctored any records. Mohler was an Army enlisted man from December 1964 to August 1971, and then went on to serve as an officer in the National Guard and Army Reserve from April 1972 to July 1983, retiring as a captain, according to the official record.
Mohler attributed false stories of a DSC and Green Beret experience to errors and rumors, and has tried to knock them down, Cummings said.
“He’s been telling people that he never had [a Distinguished Service Cross], and he’s been doing it for years,” Cummings said. “Sometimes, rumors are hard to get rid of.”
Cummings said Mohler’s DD-214, the military separation document that lists a person’s training, assignment, promotion, and awards history, makes no reference to a DSC or Special Forces service in Vietnam.
Cummings did not respond to Military.com’s request to see the DD-214, but the claims of earning more than a dozen awards for heroism, serving with a Rangers unit and Special Forces in Vietnam and getting a battlefield commission all lead back to Mohler.
‘Salted’ the record
“This may be the biggest fraud in the history of military frauds … and he's been living this lie for decades,” said Jeff Hinton, a retired Special Forces master sergeant who has exposed numerous phony medalists through his website, Professionalsoldiers.org.
In this instance, the information was largely the work of Bruce Swander, who began looking into Mohler’s background as part of an employment screening in 2006, and Mary Schantag of POW Network.
Mohler had been up for a job with a major defense contractor but did not get the post when Swander turned in his report. On the LinkedIn.com website, Mohler says he is currently on the advisory board of JMH Group, a Washington lobbying firm, and is a “principal” with The Nemacolin Business Group of Leesburg, Va.
Mohler is also the founder of The Nemacolin Institute Consortium, a non-profit group that represents local, state, federal, tribal governments, small businesses, non-profits and universities in researching and developing security systems. It describes itself as “an honest broker for the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies that protect the U.S. homeland.”
Others who pored over Mohler’s records, resume and claims included former Special Forces Lt. Steve Sherman, an independent researcher who has written and made presentations on Vietnam, Douglas Sterner, creator of Home of Heroes, which chronicles tens of thousands of awards and decorations of U.S. troops going back to the Civil War, and Joe Little, a 75tth Ranger Regiment officer in Vietnam and president of the regiment’s national association.
The group does not all agree with Hinton that Mohler may hold the title for most fraudulent awards, but all are certain that Mohler “salted” his official record at some point with phony orders and personnel entries.
Swander believes Mohler made additions to his official records and inserted phony orders into them before retiring, so that they all became part of the official history when they were transferred to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, the repository for veterans’ records.
Back in the 1970s soldiers still carried their official personnel file with them on PCS moves, and Mohler held several support assignments that would have given him access to his records, Swander said. So if anyone became suspicious and made a passing inquiry of the records, Mohler’s heroics and achievements would be validated by the stored-away documents.
In an email to Schantag after she began making inquiries in May, Swander said he doubted that “even an FBI agent would be able to spot these discrepancies and forgeries on a routine check.”
Distinguished Service Cross
Mohler’s biography on the website LinkedIn.com has been edited several times in the past week or so, with much of the information previously posted about his military career no longer visible.
But an earlier version seen and copied by Schantag and others stated that Mohler served “multiple combat tours of duty in Vietnam, and … [was] awarded numerous awards for Valor, to include two Purple Hearts, three Silver Stars, seven Bronze Stars for Valor, [and] four Army Commendation Medals for Valor.” It also stated that: “As a direct result of actions in Vietnam, John was awarded a ‘Battlefield Commission.’ ”
Left out of that biography is the Distinguished Service Cross, but Swander located what purports to be a general order from Headquarters, 25th Infantry Division, awarding Mohler the award for combat in Cambodia in 1970 while operating with F Co., 75th Infantry. At the time Mohler was assigned to Company C, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry.
The DSC is mentioned as well in an Army Personnel Qualification Record and an Officer Qualification Record from Mohler’s time in the Guard and Army Reserve.
There is also a Jan. 25, 1973, article in the Observer-Reporter of Washington, Penn., calling Mohler “reportedly the most decorated soldier from Pennsylvania,” with “his highest award the Distinguished Service Cross.”
Swander said the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, the repository of veterans’ records, later told him the DSC order was “rescinded” because the division did not have the authority to award it.
“This was a misnomer on their part,” Swander said in his email, “as it wasn't rescinded due to the fact it had never been issued by the 25th ID in the first place.” The “order” was created by someone unaware that DSCs could not be approved at the division level.
Multiple valor awards
Other orders found by Swander include a Bronze Star with V device dated August 1969, a second Bronze Star with V and an Army Commendation Medal with V dated November 1969, a Silver Star awarded in January 1970 and a second Silver Star awarded in May 1970.
After reviewing the orders, Swander could only conclude they were fraudulent. He pointed out to Schantag “tons of misspellings, wrong unit [designations], overall verbiage.” As an example, he said, the Silver Star citation dated May 12, 1970, references an armored “personal” carrier, rather than “Personnel.”
Military.com found the same error in the DSC citation dated April 15, 1971 -- more than a year later.
Though Swander for a time believed one of the Silver Stars may have been legitimately awarded, he later doubted that, as well. And he found nothing beyond Mohler’s own stated claim to suggest he had a third Silver Star.
John Aljets of Florida, who was Mohler’s company commander for the period the suspect orders say he earned two Bronze Stars and an Army Commendation with “V” device, as well as one of the Silver Stars, recalled Mohler as his recon sergeant.
“He served with me from October 1969 to sometime in March or April 1970 -- probably until the end of March. I’m not aware of any awards“ in that time, Aljets told Military.com. If he was awarded anything during that period, it may have been a Bronze Star for service.
Swander, after collecting the suspect awards orders and documents in 2006, said he turned them over to military investigators, but never heard if any action was taken. Bridget Ann Serchak, chief of public affairs for the Department of Defense Inspector General, said the office does not confirm or comment on investigations or investigative matters.
Vietnam SF, Ranger claims disputed
Joe Little, today a readjustment counselor in Las Vegas for the Department of Veterans Affairs and president of 75th Ranger Regiment Association, also disputes Mohler’s service with Co. F, 75th Infantry, the unit Mohler claimed to be fighting with when he earned the DSC
Little recalled reading Mohler’s supposed DSC citation back when Swander uncovered it. In a telephone interview with Military.com on Friday, Little said he had gone through association files and put out messages to members of F Co., 75th Infantry to see what could be validated.
He said there is no record or memory of Mohler being with the unit.
Steve Sherman, who served with 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Vietnam from 19567 to 1968, takes out Mohler’s claim of Special Forces duty in Vietnam, as well. He said Mohler cited that experience on his application for membership to the Special Forces Association.
A source who has seen the application said Mohler claimed to have been with one Special Forces unit during his first Vietnam tour in 1966, and a second SF unit during a second tour, from 1969 to 1970.
The irony is that Mohler, who did serve in a SF slot during Reserve duty and carried the Special Forces unit commander 31542 MOS, “would have been eligible for SFA [membership] based on reserve service,” Sherman said.