Local pastor made up elaborate Navy SEAL tale

By Liz Goodwin
May 9, 2011


Disgrace of a pastor lied to his congregation, and local news outlets that he was a Valorous Navy Seal during the Vietnam War.  He had to be sleuthed out by actual era navy seals before he would confess his stories were nothing but a pack of lies.  Which seem to have been borrowed from a 1992 Steven Segal film “Under Siege”  In looking up the church online it appears that Moats has neither resigned, nor has his church demanded that he pack up and leave.

In the wake of the dramatic Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's compound earlier this month, it was perhaps to be expected that some expansive soul would step forward to claim the prestige of a fabricated tour as a SEAL for himself. Such tall tales are not uncommon, after all, amid high-profile military actions.

This time the exposed fabricator was a preacher--though people who monitor this brand of public lie note that members of the clergy are often tempted into such misrepresentations. More curious still, the prevaricator in question seems to have lifted at least some details of his account from the 1992 Steven Seagal SEAL-themed blockbuster, "Under Siege."

Yes, as his area newspaper, the central Pennsylvania Patriot-News, pulled together a dispatch on the exploits of the elite Navy operation, Jim Moats, the pastor at Christian Bible Fellowship Church (Baptist Non-denominational) in Newville, Penn., spun some fantastical details of his alleged time as a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam War.

Moats told his church for five years that he was a former SEAL, and even once wore the elite program's gold Trident medal around town. He elaborated on that tale when his local paper contacted him last week as it was reporting a story about the rigors of SEAL training in the wake of the SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's compound.

Among other things, Moats said he was subjected to waterboarding when he trained at Little Creek Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach in 1971 and was assigned dishwashing duty for his bad attitude. "I had almost no discipline. I was as wild as they came. That was my nemesis," he told the paper. "They weren't looking for a guy who brags to everyone he is a SEAL. They wanted somebody who was ready but had an inner confidence and didn't have a braggadocio attitude."

Several former SEALs wrote into The Patriot-News casting doubt on the reverend's account of his service.

"We deal with these guys all the time, especially the clergy. It's amazing how many of the clergy are involved in those lies to build that flock up," said retired SEAL Don Shipley. Shipley also speculated the waterboarding and kitchen details came from the action depicted in "Under Siege."

Moats fessed up to his whopper, and admitted he bought the Trident medal at a military surplus store. "I never was in a class, I never served as an actual SEAL. It was my dream. ... I don't even know if I would have met the qualifications. I never knew what the qualifications were," he told the Patriot-News. Moats did serve in the Navy from 1970-74, but did not fight in Vietnam.

The paper, meanwhile, is unapologetic for printing Moats' prevarications.

"The Patriot-News regularly interviews veterans to tell their stories. We do not regularly ask those we interview for proof of their service, believing these men and women would not lie and dishonor those who have fought bravely defending our country," the paper said in a special note to readers about the incident.

The practice of claiming false military credentials is by no means confined to comparatively lesser known public figures such as Moats. Accusations of exaggeration and lies about military service dogged the last election cycle. In 2008, Senate candidates Mark Kirk and Richard Blumenthal were called out for exaggerating their military service, though both still won their races. Kirk's web site said he served "in Operation Iraqi Freedom," when he was serving stateside, and Blumenthal incorrectly suggested he served in Vietnam. And it's not just politicians. In 1996, the Navy's top officer committed suicide after he learned Newsweek was looking into why he wore two small bronze valor pins, which signify acts of valor in combat. He wore the pins even though he was never awarded them.

In 2005, President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act into law--legislation that made it a federal crime to claim false military honors. A recent federal appellate court ruling determined that the law's provisions were an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech. A version of the same legislation is now before Congress, with language designed to avoid the free-speech quandaries raised by the 2005 law.

(Jenny Kane/The Patriot-News)