Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
We Spoke To The Creator Of The Controversial Stolen Valor Video
On March 3, Jonathan Borrero, a 31-year-old music executive, was walking through his local Walmart in Margate, Florida, when he spotted a man wearing a military dress uniform. Borrero is the son of a Marine and the stepson of a disabled Army veteran of the Vietnam War. So when he saw the sea of medals on the man’s chest, he stopped.
“I saw the Navy SEAL trident,” Borrero told Task & Purpose. “I wanted to shake his hand.”
Borrero realized almost immediately that he had encountered a fraud. He also suspected that the man was, to some extent, mentally ill.
What happened next is documented in a video Borrero filmed with his phone and uploaded to his personal Facebook page when he got home that evening. In the video, the man in uniform, whose name tag reads Colonel Douglas M. Reis, identifies himself as a graduate of BUD/S, a fighter pilot, and a member of the CIA’s elite Special Activities Division. At one point, he opens his wallet and shows Borrero what appears to be a CIA special agent badge and an accompanying ID.
The video, which Borrero posted with the hashtag #StolenValor, went viral almost immediately, sparking an internet-wide debate over what constitutes stolen valor and how it should be dealt with. Many people applauded Borrero’s decision to “make this guy famous,” which is typically the ultimate goal of #StolenValor videos. Others, including myself, criticized him for leveling the damning accusation of stolen valor at a man who appeared to be completely unaware of the fact that he wasn’t the person he was pretending to be.
On March 6, after the video had received nearly three million views, Borrero was contacted by an agent with the Department of Homeland Security who requested the video and any other info Borrero had on Reis. (Task & Purpose confirmed this.)
“He told me the CIA wants to talk to him,” Borrero said. “Not about the stolen valor, but about the CIA stuff.”
Still, Borrero admitted to Task & Purpose that making the video public was a mistake. He now hopes that the widespread attention it garnered will help bring the man in the video the care Borrero is convinced he needs.
How did this video happen?
I didn’t want someone to think that there was some sort of malice toward the gentleman. When I saw him, I initially saw the SEAL trident. That’s what made me stop. I went over to shake his hand, and then when I looked at his uniform, it was so obvious that it was all off. He had Coast Guard ribbons; he had Navy, Army. It was just a mess. And then he was wearing his cover in door, so I was like that’s odd. I caught the mental disability right away, so that’s why I was very polite with him. I know some people online think I was being an asshole and chastising the guy. That’s why asked the gentleman, “Have you ever heard of stolen valor?” I didn’t say, “You’re doing stolen valor.” Because I don’t think he was aware.
I was a little upset at first, but then when I started to speak with him I saw that he clearly had a problem, so I let that slide. But then when he did start producing those identifications, that’s what really threw me off.
Homeland Security did call me. An investigator called me and said that they had heard about this guy before from someone else. I’ve seen CIA badges and [Reis] had a real CIA badge. A real CIA special agent badge. And he he had real authentic looking identifications.
Look, I’m a level-headed dude. I’m intelligent enough to know that there’s an issue with him. But if some boot comes back from Afghanistan or Iraq who lost his buddies and who doesn’t take the chance to talk to him, and just saw the uniform, they’d snatch it off him. I’ve got friends who told me, “John, handicapped or not, I’d snatch that uniform off of him.” I would never do something like that, but a lot of people would. I got hundreds of messages from people who were like, “Yo, you should’ve snatched that uniform off of him.” I didn’t feel like it was my place because I wasn’t in the military. I just didn’t want the guy to get himself in trouble.
That’s where it becomes complicated for a lot of people, including myself. Why the video? Why was your initial reaction, “Okay, I need to pull out my phone and record this, and then put it on the internet?”
Like I said, when I find out out that Homeland Security had dealings with him before, that he was a person that he wanted to talk to. I guess he’s done this a few time, where he’s tried to get benefits. The [Homeland Security] agent told me straight up and down, he talked to me man-to-man, he was like, “John, we’ve been looking for this guy for a while.” Other people have mentioned him before. Not about the stolen valor, but about the CIA stuff. So this agent told me straight up, “The CIA wants to talk to him.” They’re actively trying to figure out what’s going on with him.
So, I mean, you know how it is. You were in the military. If a federal officer wants to speak with you, they’re going to find you. Like I said, I had no ill intent. I take care of a disabled veteran day in and day out. My stepfather is in a wheelchair, and my mom and me take care of him. He’s wheelchair bound. He has special housing. To be honest with you, I change his diapers. I change my stepfather’s diapers. He’s someone who actually served this country and he went through hell in the military. He did 11 years. I have a passion for helping veterans. I’m not some hotshot vigilante who wants to be like, “Oh, you’re stolen valor!”
When people encounter stolen valor these days, their immediate reaction is to pull out their phone and begin filming and then put it on the internet, because that’s the name of the game. Maybe it worked out in this case, because Homeland Security reached out to you, and apparently they’re going to rectify the situation. But what if someone had seen that video and then showed up on this guy’s doorstep with a baseball bat?
It wasn’t something that was on my end that was a premeditated thought. It just kind of happened. Honestly, it was a crock of shit. When he started talking I was like, I wasn’t in the military, but I know my shit. He had on a Bronze Star and a Silver Star. The military never awarded my stepfather a Bronze Star or a Silver Star and I know he deserved one. He’s still pending his Purple Heart. He got shot down like six or seven times in Hueys. He got his Air Medal, but he didn’t get a Bronze Star and this guy is in a wheelchair! Then I see this guy [Reis] has a Bronze Star, a Silver Star with a valor device, a Navy SEAL trident, an airborne pin, and I’m like, my dad was a Marine in the infantry, and he didn’t make recon, and my dad was a pretty hardcore dude. This guy is walking around with heavy, heavy medals.
When I put it on Facebook, I didn’t initially share it publicly. I put it on my wall. I tagged veterans, who are still tagged in it, who are friends of my family. Like my dad’s friend who was a Marine. My dad’s former police chief who was Marine Recon. My other friend who was in the Army Delta Force. I tagged them to get their opinion on it. Then an overwhelming amount of people, I’m guessing because my dad’s friends shared it, started messaging me like, “This needs to be public. People need to know about this.” It was like I was between a rock and a hard place. So I was like, you know what, I’ll make it public and see if there’s a positive reaction. I got mostly a positive reaction from people. I’ve got like a thousand friend requests in the past couple of days from people who are like, “I know this is a delicate situation but I thank you.” And I had a couple people call me an asshole. Maybe two or three people. But active-duty military and veterans have been really nice to me.
That’s the thing with these videos. Once you post them, they’re out of your control. And what people do with them and how they interpret them is not up to you. Did you consider that when you decided to share the video?
To be honest with you, and I’m speaking man to man, I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. I have seen a couple of stolen valor videos that were messed up, where the people were actually real assholes. I thought maybe I’d get a couple hundreds views. My goal wasn’t to get views. I have personally over a million followers on my Twitter page. My business page on Facebook has 800,000 likes. I have a big network already for music. So it wasn’t for fame or publicity or to go viral or anything like that. I thought I was going to get a couple hundred views, maybe a thousands views, locally from friends of the family and that would be it.
Had you known it was going to get that insane response would you have gone about it differently?
Yes, I have no doubt in my mind. It hasn’t really caused a burden on me, but it is a little crazy. The notifications on my phone drain my battery twice a day. I had like 3,000 people on Facebook that I actually knew, who I did music with or whatever, and now I have a crazy amount of people messaging me all day, every day. If I could come to that crossroad again where it’s, “Do I share this publicly or leave it publicly?” I would leave it private. I really would.
Do you think the better solution in this situation would have been to pull the woman he was with aside and make her aware of the problem?
I did try to speak with her. Her English was really bad. I’m half-Hispanic, but my Spanish is terrible and her English was nonexistent. I tried to communicate with her in Spanish a little bit, but it was hard. The funny thing is, inside that Walmart there’s a substation for the local PD where I live. I actually walked over and knocked on their door and there was nobody there. Maybe they could’ve just took the guys ID and sent him on his way. But nobody answered.
The video has sparked an important conversation within the military and veteran community about stolen valor and about how it should be dealt with. It’s a risky game when people upload these videos on the internet, because you don’t know who’s going to see it.
The guy does seem to have a mental handicap, but he’s not a dumb guy because he put those IDs together. As far as being intelligent? He’s intelligent. For him to know certain things that he knows, he’s does his research. Like that special activities division; I looked it up and it’s a real thing. This is the CIA. Maybe he actually was in the military and did some of this stuff. I know he didn’t do all of it. Maybe there’s some way they can find out who is caretaker is and get the guy help. Maybe he needs medication. Maybe he needs therapy. I’m not a doctor, but I just think it’s dangerous to walk around with CIA ID and a badge. That was a real CIA badge in his wallet. Look, I’m not a saint, but I’m not a bad guy, either.
You can watch the video in the original post.
Your humble Pentagon correspondent has never been one of the "cool kids" in the world of Washington media, and never has that been more evident than in my failed attempts to interview Navy veteran Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and one of the roughly 50,000 Democrats running for president.
To the media, Buttigieg is so hot right now that he could melt the stealth coating off an F-35 – which is actually not as hard as it sounds. He is fluent in more forms of communication than C-3PO – in April, he offered his condolences to the French people for the Notre Dame fire in perfect French. He's had no problem getting media coverage from all sorts of media outlets, including National Public Radio, the New York Times, or even Fox News.
Your intrepid Pentagon correspondent was briefly on Mayor Pete's schedule, when his director of campaign operations Max Harris set up an interview for Feb. 26. But less than an hour later, Harris emailed back to say he might have to reschedule the interview due to scheduling conflicts.
Four months of silence followed. (To be fair, his campaign manager Lis Smith did confirm in March that Buttigieg had formed an exploratory committee to run for president.)
The union representing 260,000 Department of Veterans Affairs employees recently won a "cease and desist" arbitration ruling against the department's posting of lengthy lists of firings, suspensions and other disciplinary actions in violation of the Privacy Act.
The two oil tankers crippled in attacks in the Gulf of Oman last week that Washington and Riyadh have blamed on Iran are being assessed off the coast off the United Arab Emirates before their cargos are unloaded, the ships' operators said on Sunday.
For retired Sgt 1st Class Confessor Bermudez Jr., Pvt. Dorian Bermudez and Capt. Timothy Peters, watching their fathers' military service has helped inspire their own military careers.
For Father's Day, each took time to reflect on what stood out to them during their fathers' careers and how their fathers have supported them as they, too, have joined the military.
A U.S. military drone was shot down over Yemen on June 6, and just a week later, another MQ-9 Reaper was targeted over the Gulf of Oman on June 13, according to a U.S. Central Command statement.