It starts with four letters, maybe even just three.
When Don and Diane Shipley find out someone claims to be a Navy SEAL or POW, they won’t just take their word for it. And when it comes to liars, they take no prisoners.
The couple has made it their mission to track down and expose “phonies” — their word for people who falsely claim to be Navy SEALs and/or former prisoners of war.
One of their latest subjects, Odenton resident Bob Pollock, founded a veterans’ memorial on a decades-long lie of being a Navy SEAL and POW. After Pollock lied to a Capital Gazette community columnist, Don Shipley called The Capital to set the record straight.
Pollock is the latest in several fake SEAL busts Shipley has outed to the media. He has appeared in articles and on TV stations around the country, including in The Washington Post and CNN. In 2017, Shipley received a public apology from Fox News when the outlet didn’t retract a story about a fake SEAL, even after Don told reporters they’d been fooled.
Pollock did not respond for comment.
Over the last decade, the Shipleys say they have exposed thousands of fake SEALs and POWs. Phonies will falsify their records, buy fake awards and uniforms and even get tattoos to further their lie. But the Shipleys can see through it all.
The Shipleys sit in the barn loft on their Cambridge waterfront property. Don, 59, has a white beard and a thick head of silver hair, even longer and thicker than the short blonde highlights on his wife. Diane, 60, has a dark tan from lying out by the pool and on their boat.
The loft inside a red barn, dubbed Warrior’s Rest, is where the Shipleys house veterans and their families who come to stay with them through their charity organization. Warrior is also the name of their enormous slobbering 2-year-old Labrador retriever.
The space is covered in animal pelts and photos of Navy SEALs.
There’s a bear one of their SEAL friends shot in Alaska and an anaconda skin another brought back from the jungle.
The knobs of the white kitchen cabinets are shotgun shells or deer hooves. An alligator head sits atop the microwave. The coasters on the coffee table in front of their camouflage recliners are shaped like 12 gauge bullets.
A moment of rest like this is rare for the Shipleys, as their days are almost entirely consumed with answering dozens of verification requests for those who want to know if their loved ones or local officials are really SEALs.
“It never stops,” Diane Shipley said. “It’s every day from the time we wake up until the time we go to bed.”
Don is one of a few Navy SEALs in the nation who has been entrusted with a SEAL database. Anyone who has ever been a SEAL or even started SEAL training is in his system, dating back to World War II when they were called Amphibious Scouts and Raiders.
He also works with the POW network, who keep their own database of every prisoner of war, and the Naval Special Warfare Headquarters, who can give the official word on someone’s SEAL status.
The database was created by a group called AuthentiSEALs, who gathered Navy records to account for every SEAL and ran their own verification system for decades before they handed the system over to Shipley.
“It is extraordinarily demanding to go through a single case in a day,” Steve Robinson said. He’s a Missouri resident and the last of the AuthentiSEALs to pass the torch to Shipley about 10 years ago.
“Guys will alter pages and all that sort of thing. Trying to sort all that out from just one set of records, to look through it and play detective is tremendous work and Don has become a master at it.”
Robinson and the AuthentiSEALs verified SEAL and POW claims, but Shipley changed the game.
“Don took it to the airwaves,” Robinson said.
Shipley began running a YouTube page where he and his wife would blast fake SEALs in “Phony SEAL of the Week” videos. YouTube shut down his account in February after Shipley went after Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder who made headlines after he faced off with Catholic school students.
So now, the Shipleys run their own website where subscribers can pay for their content.
Their site, videos.extremesealexperience.com, is known for the videos they put up confronting or making fun of fake SEALs. But there are also tabs like “Ask Don and Diane S–t” and “Diane’s Country Cookin.”
She’s posted recipes for bloody mary meatloaf, beer bread and sweet potato bison shepherd’s pie and videos of her cooking “Kick Ass Ice Water Chicken” and “A Boozy Dessert that will get ya s–t faced.”
The couple has fun, but busting phonies has consumed their life.
Every time Navy SEALs make the news or appear in movies, the Shipleys get blasted with verification requests.
In the wake of events like the SEAL Team Six rescuing an American ship from Somali pirates in 2009 and the execution of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, the Shipleys said they received about 50 verification requests a day.
“We do not fly by the seat of our pants,” Don said. “When we’re calling someone a liar we have everything in order.”
Don spends hours on each verification. He sends out Freedom of Information Act requests for records, which can take weeks to get back. He checks if people have falsified their records and awards or changed their name. He sometimes receives misspelled names and inaccurate ages, which can make the process harder. But he always finds an answer.
“I know the training class you went through, who you went through training with, the dates, the names, the commanding officers,” Don said.
“I’m lethal with it. You can’t lie to me. You can’t even throw me a curve ball.”
If the Shipleys ever take a vacation, they’re hunting down phonies. They’ve flown to Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina and Texas to help people who are afraid to confront their loved ones or local leaders alone.
When people are faced with their lies, the Shipleys say they often get hit with threats and harassment. People spread rumors about the couple on the internet or make fun of Diane for her weight, she said.
“They go after me like, ‘That loudmouth b—-h. She was never a SEAL. She never went through SEAL training. Why does she care?'” she said.
As a Navy veteran who stuck with her husband through SEAL training, raised their child alone while he was deployed, watched her son become a SEAL and come home “broken” and watched her friends’ children get deployed and die, Diane said she has a right to care.
When people use their fake SEAL status to get opportunities, she says she thinks of her son.
“It’s a hard, hard life,” she said. “I don’t want anybody out there getting that job when my son really needs that job.”
“A phony is born”
There are a few different types of phonies, the Shipleys say.
There are people who say they’re SEALs or POWs for financial gain. They profit off of GoFundMes and take advantage of charities for veterans, Don said. At least one in five GoFundMes for a Navy SEAL or POW are fake, Don said. Part of his days are spent getting the fake GoFundMes taken down.
Under the Stolen Valor Act, profiting off of false claims of military accolades is a federal crime.
“I get after charities a lot,” Don said.
“They donate guys these service dogs, houses, country music singers. And the guy never…he was nothin’. You bought him a house and you didn’t check? Really? It all comes back to the same thing. ‘We didn’t want to offend him.’ Really? Well, you should have.”
Then, there are “religious phonies.”
Dating sites can become hotbeds for fake SEALs, the couple said.
“Christian Mingle’s the worst because it’s supposed to be Christian,” Diane said. “It’s filled with phonies.”
Don made headlines in 2011 after he outed a Pennsylvania pastor who bought a SEAL trident medal at a military supply store and told his congregation he was a SEAL for five years.
“People think, ‘Oh, he’s the godly man, he would never lie to me.’ The hell he won’t,” Don said.
Phonies can also be abusers, the couple said, using fake SEAL status to keep a hold on abusive relationships.
Don said he often gets calls from families cut off from their loved ones by fake SEALs.
“He convinces her, ‘There’s snipers watching us, the phones are tapped, if you try to check on me you’re going to alert the White House and they’re going to call me.’ It gets very elaborate with what these guys do to the women. They’re very abusive and very controlling and it’s hard to get them out but one day they wake up,” Don said.
“They blame everything, all their woes on SEAL pain. ‘That’s why I beat you, that’s why I drank, my PTSD.’ They go to such great lengths to cover that charade up.”
Some fake SEALs do have some type of military record, but Don says it’s often not good.
“You had a run in the military and you were just ashamed of it, so you compensate for it by turning yourself into something respectable, something people would admire.”
Then, there’s the tiny white lie that can snowball into something inescapable.
“Oftentimes, that guy just had a couple bottles of Loudmouth at the VFW and he drops that SEAL bomb,” Don said. “And you heard him and now he can’t get out of it.”
Don said he sometimes gets thanked by the people he busts because they don’t have to keep living a lie.
When people would ask Don if wearing a SEAL shirt was okay, he used to say yes. But he doesn’t recommend it anymore.
“When you wear that SEAL shirt, everyone is going to stop you at Walmart and go ‘Were you a SEAL?’ and you’ll say no 10 times, but one time you’ll say yes. You’ll love the reaction and a phony is born.”
Somebody’s gotta do it
Don and Diane are supposed to be relaxing in their retirement, but they’ve stuck with phony hunting as a full-time job because they feel it’s so important.
Don is hesitant to hand the database off. He’s worried about someone making a mistake if they’re not careful or sensitive enough.
“You have to be tactful, respectful,” Don said.
“All you hear me call these guys is ‘sir’ a lot. Now, they will fire me up on occasion and I’ll really go after them. But you have to be really delicate to get that story out. You’ve gotta be professional. You can’t have a hot head.”
Diane doesn’t want people to think of the couple as bullies.
“Don always gives people a way out. You pull all of that s–t down off of your website, off Facebook, and you make an apology for lying to people. And if they do that, he never makes a video,” she said.
“Once we’ve outed somebody we do not harass the families. We’re not phoning them. We’re not calling wives and children. We simply give them a chance to stop and if they don’t stop we out them and move on. That’s it.”
Aside from the time it takes from their family, the Shipleys hate the job most when they come across dead phonies.
The couple keeps a close eye on obituaries since sites like ancestry.com and geneology.com don’t verify military information and can immortalize fake accolades.
“We get phone calls from children, adults, that they’re father’s just passed away and want to know if Don can get a bunch of SEALs together to come and be pallbearers at the funeral. And sometimes he doesn’t even want to tell them,” Diane said.
“That’s who taught you how to tie your shoes and ride a bicycle, your first fishing buddy. You look up to your mom and dad. You believe them. Then after he’s died you find out everything you knew about him was a lie. It would affect your entire life. We hate those. Those are the worst.”
There is one plus side to sorting through all the lies, Don said.
Notoriety from their videos and fake SEAL hunting reputation also brought attention to the wannabe SEAL training camp they used to run out of their home in Virginia, and now to their charity Warrior’s Rest in Cambridge.
“People like seeing me get dressed in a phone booth every morning and fighting those guys. I never intended it to have that effect. I just did not like them. But we have this very loyal following of people who like seeing that and think we’re doing well. We get the donations, the property,” Don said.
“So all this, in some strange fashion, those phonies are paying for it.”
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