A prominent veterans group is refunding donations it collected for a woman accused of falsely claiming to be a Marine Corps combat veteran with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star medal for valor who was suffering from Stage IV lung cancer.

“To be clear, no monies were received by this individual, HunterSeven Foundation did not raise funds for this individual specifically, and any donations that were a result after sharing this individual’s story were refunded to their original form of payment through our online fundraising platform,” the HunterSeven Foundation said in a statement to Task & Purpose. “We are disheartened by this circumstance, but will not allow it to derail us from our mission and helping those in need.”

Several weeks ago, the woman sent an urgent request for help to the foundation and then provided documents in support of her claims, the nonprofit organization announced in a Jan. 31 letter to donors.

When the HunterSeven Foundation was alerted to questions about the woman’s alleged military service, the charity investigated the matter along with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, according to the letter, which was obtained by Task & Purpose.

“We were horrified to learn that, in fact, this was a circumstance of fraudulent military service, financial, and medical treatment records,” according to the letter, which does not include the woman’s name. “Upon learning this information, the Foundation contacted local and federal authorities and concurrently swiftly stopped payment on an initial check that had been sent.”

Chelsey Simoni, executive director of the HunterSeven Foundation, deferred questions about the woman in question to federal investigators. 

Task & Purpose has obtained a copy of the document that the woman sent to the HunterSeven Foundation, which she claimed was her DD-214 military discharge document. It lists her full name as Sarah Cavanaugh, whom various media outlets have reported is a Marine veteran and commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152 in Rhode Island.

Marine Corps photo

The Marine Corps does not have any records for a “Sarah Cavanaugh” or for a Marine with the Social Security Number listed on the DD-214, said Yvonne Carlock, a spokeswoman for Manpower & Reserve Affairs.

A Facebook group run by female Marine veterans worked with the HunterSeven Foundation to see if they could verify Cavanaugh’s service as a Marine, said one of the group’s administrators. Members instantly noticed discrepancies in Cavanaugh’s comments to media outlets about where and when she deployed along with problems with the awards she was wearing on her uniform.

On Tuesday, Cavanaugh told Task & Purpose she never told HunterSeven that she was a Marine who is suffering from cancer. She also said that she never sent the charity a DD-214 as proof that she had served in the Marine Corps. “I do not intend to accept any donations from any charities,” Cavanaugh said in a phone interview with Task & Purpose.

She said she was never affiliated with VFW Post 152. She did not answer when asked if she had ever served as the post’s commander. VFW officials confirmed that Cavanaugh had served as commander of Post 152, but she resigned on Monday.

VFW spokesman Rob Couture said the group is investigating Cavanaugh for possibly falsifying her military record. “It is up to the member to provide verification of their service and we have processes and bylaws in place on how we can verify that,” Couture said.

Marine Corps photo
Sarah Cavanaugh served as commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 152. (VFW Department of Rhode Island Facebook page.)

Cavanaugh also claimed that the HunterSeven Foundation had contacted her, not the other way around.

“They outreached to me directly saying they had heard some things about me, that they had known my story, or something about some story, that they had been given my name by someone,” Cavanaugh said. “It was all indirect, third-person referrals. I never outreached to that charity. I didn’t, you know. I wasn’t aware of any posts they were going to make to raise money or anything like that.”

However Marine Maj. Thomas Schueman, founder of the nonprofit veterans group Patrol Base Abbate, said that Cavanaugh told him she was dying of cancer from toxic exposure to burn pits, and she also provided him with a DD-214 that was ultimately found to be riddled with disparities.

Schueman said he met with Cavanaugh after he saw that she had posted a GoFundMe fundraiser in which she claimed to have cancer. She also claimed to have received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with “V” device.

During a roughly 90-minute conversation, Cavanaugh told Schueman that she had been wounded in Afghanistan and medically evacuated to Germany and then Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he said.

“She told me about her injury recoveries; how she was medically retired as a staff sergeant, and then how a couple of years ago she said she was coughing and that she started to cough up blood, so she went to the doctor, and that she had had Stage IV lung cancer and that it spread to her bones and her brain and that she had anywhere from one to two years left of life, based on the timeline that the doctor gave her, because it was not curable at that point, only treatable,” Schueman said.

Schueman was so moved by Cavanaugh’s story he looked into hiring her at Patrol Base Abbate. But discrepancies quickly emerged in her story.

She told him that her twin brother was killed in Iraq and buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but a member of Patrol Base Abbate who visited the gravesite noticed it was for a Marine killed in Afghanistan who was not related to her, Schueman said.

Cavanaugh also submitted artwork for an art fair that was not hers, and then Schueman noticed problems on the DD-214 she had submitted, which listed her rank at the time of separation as corporal. The document also did not say that she had been medically retired.

“She said: ‘Oh, I was court-martialed before I got out of the Marine Corps because I was being sexually assaulted by my commanding officer on ship and I shot him as he attempted to sexually assault me,’” Schueman said. “And I’m like ‘OK.’ So, she said: ‘I got reduced two ranks.’”

However, when Schueman sent the DD-214 to his contacts in the Marine Corps, he learned that the Defense Department identification number on the document belonged to a male corporal. Cavanaugh was also not listed in any of the award databases for the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

When he confronted her about these issues, she claimed to be the victim of a Marine Corps conspiracy to erase her identity because she had shot her commanding officer, Schueman said.

Kate Mannion, co-host of the podcast Zero Blog Thirty, first revealed the alleged deception during Monday’s episode. Mannion said that she had sent the HunterSeven Foundation a donation for the woman, whom she believed had been wounded by a roadside bomb blast.

Mannion told Task & Purpose that Cavanaugh’s alleged deception is a betrayal on two levels.

“Had she gotten away with it, that’s money and attention to a cause that could have gone towards someone who really, truly needed it,” Mannion said. “If you look at who HunterSeven helps: Those are military veterans who truly need it, desperately.  So, I think that’s the one betrayal; and the other is: It betrays the trust of people like me and the people I asked to donate; so next time when there is a real need, people might be hesitant to trust and donate.”

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