NC academy head suspected of posing as Vietnam vet

AP News
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Posted: Apr 07, 2011 3:16 PM
NC academy head suspected of posing as Vietnam vet

Well before he became commandant of North Carolina's only military boarding academy, William Northrop regaled people with stories of serving in the jungles of Vietnam _ how he was wounded in battle, how some comrades committed suicide, how he used amphetamines on patrol.

But his war stories may be pure fiction.

There is no record Northrop ever served in the military, let alone Vietnam.

Northrop, 66, left as commandant at Oak Ridge Military Academy last fall after just a few months on the job, the same day a parent formally asked school officials to look into his background.

He refused to discuss his past or explain the discrepancies in his record to an Associated Press reporter. The academy's president would not discuss Northrop's background either.

If his claim of wartime service proves false, it will be the latest and one of the most audacious to emerge in recent years, and comes as the courts grapple with the constitutionality of a 2006 federal law that makes it a crime to pose as a war hero.

The academy, with an enrollment of about 125, had hired Northrop to oversee the cadets even though there had been long-standing suspicions about him, including a 1998 book on military impostors, "Stolen Valor," that pronounced Northrop a "pretender."

Northrop claimed in a 1992 book profiling veterans that he served as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam and Laos and also saw duty with the Israeli military. He provided intimate stories about life in the war zone and told the author of "Saigon to Jerusalem" that the experience still haunted him. Oak Ridge's archives, which Northrop helped develop, likewise say he served with the Army in Vietnam.

A photo on the Oak Ridge website shows Northrop in fatigues, boots and a dark beret.

In response to a request from the AP, the National Archives said it could find no record of Northrop's military service after extensive searches and a check with the FBI. The National Archives manages a big records center for those who served in the military, and even provides basic details on those who took part in covert operations.

Northrop's account of being wounded in the February 1968 battle of Lang Vei also doesn't match military records. Official accounts said 24 Americans were involved and 10 were killed. Northrop isn't named in those accounts, nor is he on a roster of Special Forces personnel from that time.

"He's lying. The whole thing is a lie," said Paul R. Longgrear, 67, who was in the Lang Vei battle. Longgrear said he was a little angry and repulsed while reading Northrop's account of Lang Vei from "Saigon to Jerusalem," written by Eric Lee.

The Israel Defense Forces also couldn't confirm any record of Northrop, and "Stolen Valor," by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley, cited numerous inaccuracies in Northrop's war stories and his supposed service record.

Northrop told an AP reporter that he left Oak Ridge to work on a business opportunity, not because of any questions about his credentials.

"I'm not running for president. I'm not explaining anything," he said. He warned a reporter to "be careful."

Oak Ridge, a college preparatory school about 100 miles northwest of Raleigh that was founded in 1852 and bills itself as the second-oldest military academy in the country, has struggled recently. A few years ago, it was unable to pay its employees or its creditors. And a coach resigned last month after the Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of diverting money for his own use.

Cuyler McKnight, who was Oak Ridge president when Northrop was hired, said Northrop was working as a volunteer in the academy's archives office when the two met in 2009. By the middle of 2010, the academy needed a commandant, and McKnight thought Northrop, a 1962 graduate, would be good for the job because he clearly cared for the school.

McKnight said he learned of concerns about Northrop's background only after he left as president in September.

The current president, David Johnson, said in a note to parents that he accepted Northrop's resignation Oct. 26, and touted improvements Northrop made to the campus. In an interview, Johnson said he was unaware of any worries about Northrop's background before or after the commandant's departure.

However, Lori Yon, whose 17-year-old son attended Oak Ridge, said she sent a hand-delivered letter to Johnson on the day of Northrop's departure asking for an investigation. She had been looking into the commandant's history after she found encounters with him to be volatile and bizarre. One time, she said, he flew into a tirade after she informed him about her son's back injury. Yon has since taken her son out of the academy.

Northrop told a reporter that Yon was spreading nonsense about him and said her son just "couldn't cut it."

School officials have refused to say whether they are investigating Northrop. Recently he was a guest speaker at a student ceremony, according to two people who attended. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears of retribution from school leaders.

Jim Shields, who has an 18-year-old son at Oak Ridge, said Northrop typically wore civilian clothes on campus. But on one September afternoon, Shields saw Northrop wearing an Army uniform with captain's bars, patches for Rangers and Special Forces, and three full rows of service ribbons.

Congress passed a law that makes it illegal to falsely claim to have been awarded medals or other decorations from the U.S. military. A federal court last year deemed the law unconstitutional, saying it infringes on free speech. The case _ involving Rick Strandlof, who was arrested in 2009 after claiming he was wounded in Iraq as a Marine and received the Purple Heart and Silver Star _ is now before an appeals court.

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AP National Writer Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.