Chances are if the name Don Shipley rings a bell for you, it is likely for one of two reasons: either you enjoy watching him call out, bust, and shame stolen valor phonies; or you are one of those phonies yourself.
Senior Chief Shipley’s Navy Career
Don Shipley is a retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief who served in uniform from 1978 until his retirement in 2003. Sr. Chief Shipley started his career in the Fleet Navy, where he would eventually meet his wife Diane; a fellow active-duty sailor. Sr. Chief Shipley and his wife were introduced to one another on that ship in the most austere of ways; Shipley was leading a training aboard the ship and his wife and her friends were talking in the back. Annoyed, Shipley told Diane and her friends to “shut the hell up or you can come teach this class your own damn self.” After that training ended, Diane approached Don and said “are you going to ask me out or what?” That was the beginning of a wild ride for the two of them that has now been 37 years in the making.
I did an interview with Sr. Chief Shipley by phone to get a bit of his backstory and learn more about how he got into busting phony SEALs. One thing he told me about meeting his wife was that once he and Diane were married, the rules of the Navy dictated that one of them had to leave the ship. Shipley, knowing almost nothing about Navy SEALs other than having seen them training at Coronado, CA, decided that line of work seemed a lot more entertaining to him than life on a ship so he did a lat-move and received his orders to BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL) training.
Sr. Chief Shipley successfully completed BUDS and in 1985 was assigned to SEAL Team One in Coronado. For those who aren’t familiar, all odd-numbered SEAL teams are based out of Coronado and all even-numbered SEAL teams are based in Little Creek, VA, (with SEAL Team Six being located “across the street” from those even-numbered Virginia teams).
Following a couple of tours of duty on the West Coast, Sr. Chief Shipley made the swap to the east coast teams and became a member of SEAL Team Two. According to Sr. Chief Shipley’s website, “When not in a SEAL Platoon or deployed overseas his time was spent running blocks of training for SEALs in air operations, land warfare, and demolitions.” It continues, “As a SEAL he preferred the challenge of Mountain and Arctic Warfare but began his career in the equally hostile desert environment, spending much of his time in the world’s hottest and coldest climates.”
According to his website, Shipley served in eight SEAL Platoons, was platoon chief in five, and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for Heroism during a Search and Rescue Mission. As a SEAL, he conducted operations in Bosnia and Liberia and became the first non-Corpsman SEAL to graduate Paramedic School.
A Family Affair
In addition to being a decorated Navy SEAL veteran himself, Sr. Chief Shipley’s family is also steeped in military service. As I mentioned earlier, Shipley’s wife is a Navy veteran, his brothers are a Marine and an Army veteran, and his son, DJ Shipley, is a former DEVGRU operator and a medically retired recipient of the Purple Heart for injuries he sustained in combat. Beyond that, Sr. Chief Shipley’s son-in-law is also a Navy SEAL. Suffice it to say, honorable service in dangerous climes and places runs in the Shipley family’s veins.
With that info in mind, there is absolutely no doubt as to why Sr. Chief Shipley feels so strongly about those who (at best) pretend to have served in the military or (at worst) use their fake military service – often as alleged Navy SEALs – as a way of gaining attention, money, or preferential treatment.
Sr. Chief Shipley said that what motivates most – if not all – of the people who pretend to be Navy SEALs is one of three things: a desire to build trust with someone; a craving for respect from others; a desire to intimidate someone.
Extreme SEAL Experience
If you aren’t otherwise familiar with Sr. Chief Shipley, this is where the real fun begins. First, for years, Shipley and some of his old Navy buddies ran a program he called Extreme SEAL Experience (ESE) in which, for a fee, people could come to Shipley’s property and be put through a course that would give them a taste of what being a SEAL, or what SEAL training, was like. Shipley originally created the course to help with Navy SpecOp recruiting, but the training eventually transitioned to a place where everyday people could go for a physical and mental challenge.
The reasons people attended the course were as varied as the people who attended it. Some who did the course were former military personnel who just missed the action of pushing their bodies to the limit. Others were industry professionals who wanted to do something difficult that would give them a different viewpoint and mindset. Still, others were prospective Navy SEALs who wanted to gain any information they could from the seasoned vets leading the course prior to attending BUDS training themselves.
Sr. Chief Shipley no doubt had no preconceived notion that the ESE course would propel him into such a public spotlight, but the course, and the YouTube videos to come, would eventually serve to do just that.
Phony Navy SEAL of the Week
What Sr. Chief Shipley is best known for now across America are his “Phony Navy Seal of the Week” videos posted both on YouTube and his website for the past years. First off, if you’ve never seen one of Shipley’s videos take a quick break from this article and head to his Youtube channel to watch a few. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Shipley and his wife Diane are typically the ones at the helm of the videos and are a comedic duo the likes that are rarely seen anymore in the media. They are raw, hilarious, real, serious, and even emotional – and sometimes all in one video.
In these videos, the Shipleys show us one part behind the scenes of their phony SEAL callouts, one part a glimpse into their relationship, and one large part putting panties on the men who inappropriately use the title “SEAL” for some ill-gotten personal gain.
I think that most people have been conditioned by the news media or by urban folklore that men like Navy SEALs are serious men with no sense of humor. In fact, as I’ve found over the years, it’s almost the exact opposite. Because their initial training is so arduous and their daily job so perilous, most Navy SEALs (and others such as Marines, Army Rangers, etc.) I’ve run across over the years have a sense of humor like no other.
I’ll personally relate to it in this way: As a police officer, I ran across or was dispatched to a variety of wacky, gross, or otherwise devastating situations. Whether people who were DOA, overdosed, or been killed. People to whom I had to give CPR, who had been in bizarre car crashes, and even those who just wanted to know if certain objects would fit in certain crevices within their bodies.
Long story short, if you absorb everything that you run up on as an officer without also having a (somewhat morbid) sense of humor, then you are either going to be depressed, a jerk, or have a substance abuse problem yourself (or perhaps all three). And let me say this, no, I am not at all saying that being a cop and being a Navy SEAL or an Army Ranger is one and the same. They aren’t. What I am saying is that the dark and/or exaggerated sense of humor needed in each of those jobs is something that allows human beings to see horrible stuff and protect their minds against extra wear and tear, and extend their longevity in that career space.
As an example, one way I deal with the fact that I’ve given CPR to people and failed is to say (when the topic arises) that “I’m zero for 10.” They say what do you mean by “zero for 10?” I then tell them, I’ve given CPR to 10 people and I’ve saved zero. That is a small exaggeration by me, but the outcome isn’t. I’ve never given CPR to someone and had them pop back to life. Maybe I suck at giving CPR or maybe some of them were already too far gone prior to my arrival. Either way, the way my mind has decided to deal with it is with dark humor. It’s a protection mechanism for my brain. I can either be sad or I can be “funny.” I choose funny every time.
Sr. Chief Shipley’s videos follow that same track I feel. It is so overwhelming to see just how many phony SEALs there are parading around the globe and giving SEALs a terrible name that his options are to stay pissed off and grumpy the entire time or to handle it with a bit of comedic relief. Now, don’t get me wrong, when Shipley is outing the phony SEALs there is very little humor involved. In all other points and cuts of the video, though, he is an absolute comedian. If you still aren’t sure how he could achieve this, then once again I say to pause reading this article and head to his website or to YouTube and witness it for yourself.
If You Label Stolen Valor Then GET IT RIGHT!
If Shipley merely called the phony SEAL and confronted him over the telephone, the video would be tough to watch for most viewers because it would be nothing but serious discussion. In turn, Shipley would stay frustrated about constantly being asked to deal with these phonies with no real emotional release. Then, his viewership would probably decrease. When we spoke, Shipley said that he actually doesn’t really enjoy confronting these phonies and has to work himself up a bit and force himself to do it… the exception to that is when the phony is notably criminal in his deviousness.
He also made the point that people shouldn’t enjoy confronting people they believe are pretending to be something they are not. One thing he said that bothers him is when people don’t “stay in their lane.” He gave an example when just last month a female patron slapped an actual active-duty Sailor in the face at a Connecticut pizzeria because she believed he was a phony. She berated the Sailor, identified as Sean Nolte Jr., and cursed at him, even telling fellow patrons and restaurant workers that Nolte was a “fake.” She then picked up his Navy cover and threw it at him yelling, “That’s not a uniform you fucking piece of shit!” Nolte was polite and professional throughout their interaction, but because this lady was way out of her lane, she not only mislabeled someone as having stolen valor, but assaulted him as well. Mislabeling people is something Shipley believes is unforgivable.
In fact, Shipley is adamant about is “getting it right.” He said he has never falsely labeled someone a phony SEAL or falsely labeled someone as having stolen valor because he puts significant research and effort into getting it right. Shipley often cautions viewers of his videos to ensure the label they are putting on someone is correct, especially before putting that information out to the masses. Labeling a real veteran as a fake is just as slippery a slope as phonies making false claims. Additionally, if you happen to label a real veteran as a phony then you might just find yourself a few teeth shy of a full set. And deservedly so…
No Profession Is Safe – Applebees Waiters Are the Biggest Offenders
Over the years, Shipley has exposed men from nearly all walks of life for pretending to be SEALs. He’s outed “religious” people and pastors, successful professionals, former military personnel who have honorable but not “unique” service stories, restaurant waiters (he said usually from Applebees), and people who lead tactical training under the guise of being “retired SEAL Team Six” or a “former Navy SEAL.”
Sr. Chief Shipley has outed phony SEALs (like AJ Dickens) who had bamboozled investors out of $40 million dollars before being caught; has been threatened by a phony SEAL (Jerry Branyon) who claimed to have ties with the Gambino crime family in New York; and has been threatened with physical assault and legal repercussion dozens of times simply for doing the work he does. Shipley doesn’t do this work because he needs to, he does it because he feels passionate about maintaining public respect for the term Navy SEAL and to honor those who have served and fallen bearing that trident. Shipley told me that many of the men he outs as phonies are either habitual sexual predators, tax cheats, have never served in uniform, or generally just have terrible criminal backgrounds. Because of those reasons, these phonies seek to change the outcome of their pathetic lives. To me, it’s a total mental disorder.
Shipley said the men who have never served a day in uniform are some of the worst, most flagrant phonies that he deals with. He said many of these men tell graphic stories in bars about having to murder loads of children or about other disgusting acts they had to do as a SEAL. Additionally, these men aren’t content with the barstool war stories: they also frequently have to label themselves as recipients of a Purple Heart or a Congressional Medal of Honor. One phony that Shipley outed used the name recognition of Marcus Luttrell (of Lone Survivor fame) to garner respect. He told people that Luttrell was actually a terrible swimmer and that he (the phony) failed him in certain aspects of his training. When outed by both Shipley and Marcus Luttrell on a live phone call, he held tight to his story and continued to contend that he wasn’t a fraud. He was.
Stolen Valor isn’t Enough – The Hero Syndrome
It isn’t enough for many of these phonies to pretend to be a Navy SEAL or even a veteran who has seen combat. Instead, these men have to be a hero to those with whom they interact. They frequent military surplus shops and acquire uniforms, medals, and ribbons they don’t even begin to rate. Many of these men have even created such backstories that their best friends and even their spouse many times believes them to be a decorated Navy SEAL war hero. And sadly, many of them would get away with it without Shipley’s involvement.
The way that Sr. Chief Shipley verifies these phonies is through the use of a secret database. Maybe “secret” isn’t the right word because at this point it is well-known, but “well-controlled” definitely describes it. Shipley is one of the very few men who have access to a Navy SEAL database that lists all the men who have ever entered and graduated SEAL training along with their class number, class list, and class graduation date. Shipley uses this list to perfection. He uses the information contained in the database to quiz phonies about their BUDS training and asks questions like “what was your BUDS class number,” or “name three guys from your BUDS class,” etc.
Anyone who was in any branch of the military can answer these questions without pause. For example, I left the military 17 years ago and I can name my rackmate in boot camp (Mitch) or my hooch mate in Marine Combat Training (Eric). I can name my drill instructors and can list off dozens of people I served with, my boot camp platoon number, and graduation date. Not to mention, I have photos of me in the Marine Corps just doing the job. It’s easy because it happened. For phonies, it is all an act and the crucial element for their story becomes how well they can remember their lies.
Once Shipley confirms that the phony in question is definitely not a SEAL, he often sends in requests for that person’s actual military record, which can be a lengthy process. He said that when he receives their DD-214 (a veteran’s discharge papers) oftentimes it is revealed that the phony had negative service experiences (at best) or criminal actions (at worst) and are in a way trying to renew their reputation and garner respect by now claiming to be a Navy SEAL.
Some phonies are more successful with living their lies than others and have put together lists of names and places of service, while others haven’t thought past the first question of “tell me your BUDS class number and year your class graduated.” As I said, Shipley utilizes his access to the Navy SEAL database to perfection and thus, almost immediately most phonies’ stories start to crumble. Once their backstory crumbles, phonies usually have one of a number of reactions: either they double down and start making threats, they tell Shipley to call a fill-in-the-blank SEAL to confirm their identity, they say the phone is cutting out or they start to explain away their SEAL claim by stating they actually just “support” SEALs or that they dressed up as a SEAL for Halloween, etc.
Be Careful How You ‘Support’ SEALs
I asked Shipley what his opinion was of those who claim they are simply supporting Navy SEALs by wearing SEAL memorabilia in public or by putting tridents on their motorcycles or cars. He replied “Here’s the deal. These people who wear SEAL memorabilia will say ‘No’ the first 10 times they are asked if they are a SEAL, but they eventually will say ‘yes.’ They will just like the reaction they get when they say ‘yes’ and a phony is born.”
In fact, Shipley said that most authentic SEALs are hesitant to provide details of their service in the SEAL teams because of the reaction they get. It seems like someone who is all too happy to tell you about their service in SEAL Team Six may be just the person that you need to be wary of as a phony. It doesn’t mean they are, but it definitely makes it more plausible. “The truth is,” Shipley said, “there is no real support needed for Navy SEALs. It was so much fun that most of us would’ve done it without a paycheck.”
Shipley’s Honorable Service Continues
Today, Shipley and his wife run the nonprofit Extreme SEAL Adventures. According to its website, “Our mission is to provide support through hunting and fishing to Boys and Girls with cancer and other illnesses who will never be able to serve in the military, and to combat-injured military veterans who have served. Extreme SEAL Adventures is our way to give back after many years of success running Extreme SEAL Experience Training Courses and our video website.”
Shipley and his wife Diane are also teaming up with the folks at Walter Reed hospital to help wounded veterans, who are down on their luck, get the therapy they need to reintegrate into society after a traumatic injury. Sr. Chief Shipley helps move the needle forward for these men by bringing them out to his property in Cambridge, Maryland to get a heavy dose of open space and fresh air. There, they can hunt game, chat with people who have experienced similar trauma, and eat home-cooked meals. When their trip ends, Shipley then sends each man home with a cooler of freshly killed meat.
As tough as Sr. Chief Shipley is on phony SEALs and other frauds, he is equally as caring and giving for those who have sacrificed much for this country. To them, he is generous, tender, and thoughtful. He is a prime example of what we expect our servicemembers and veterans to be.
There will definitely not be a shortage of phonies to confront for as long as Don Shipley decides to continue outing fake SEALs. The exposure SEALs have gotten following the bin Laden raid, the Jessica Lynch rescue, and the Captain Phillips rescue has only made the profession more lucrative for those who wish to abuse the fame SEALs have attained. For now, if you are pretending to be a SEAL but you’re really a phony, standby. The hammer of justice is coming your way; and on its head it reads, “Hey bro, Don Shipley here. Retired Navy SEAL.” Once you hear those words, it’s too late. You’re outed. Standby.