After years of letting his congregation believe he’d once been a Navy SEAL, a Pennsylvania pastor’s tale has come undone.
Last week, The Patriot-News newspaper, based in Harrisburg, reached out to former SEALs living in midstate Pennsylvania, hoping for some local perspective on the U.S. commando operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Rev. Jim Moats, of Newville, obliged, and was featured in a story that ran in Saturday’s edition. But it turns out Moats was never a SEAL, and the guilt-ridden pastor went to the paper’s office on Sunday to fess up.
“I never was in a class, I never served as an actual SEAL. It was my dream,” Moats, 59, who did serve in the Navy from 1970 to 1974, told the paper. “I don’t even know if I would have met the qualifications. I never knew what the qualifications were.”
Moats owns a gold Trident medal given to those who have completed SEALs training, but says he bought it at a military surplus store. And the medal cost more than what he paid for the parts of his tale which were apparently cribbed from Hollywood movies. Don Shipley, a retired SEAL who helps maintain a database of SEALs, told The Patriot-News that Moats’ references to being re-assigned to kitchen duty and being waterboarded came from Steven Seagal’s “Under Siege,” and a reference to being hit by instructors came from “GI Jane.”
According to The Patriot-News, while Moats did serve in the Navy and was honorably discharged, the closest he got to Vietnam “was in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the USS Independence.”
The SEAL tale apparently stemmed from a plaque that Moats has in his office at the Christian Bible Fellowship Church in Newville. The plaque honors SEALs and other Navy special-operations units, and was made for Moats by his two sons, who have both served in Iraq. The plaque doesn’t include Moats’ name, but it was enough for church members to reach a conclusion, and Moats never corrected them.
“I have allowed people to assume that, and I have not corrected it. Probably at this church for the last five years do people assume that,” Moats said.
Moats said one of his sons called him after the story ran on Saturday, asking him why he told people he had been a SEAL. Moats, whose father was wounded in the South Pacific during World War II, suggested he wanted to be a war hero, too.
“It’s an ego-builder, and it’s just simply wrong. In that sense I’ve been living this lie for the past five years,” he said.
That’s quite a change from what Moats told the paper for the original article, in which he was quoted saying, of his recruitment: “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.”
Moats plans to offer his congregation a full explanation at Wednesday night services this week.
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Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com