The Black Friday shopper in Army camo and a Ranger tab caught the attention of Ryan Berk almost immediately. Berk, a former enlisted infantryman and combat vet, smelled a potential faker.
"I watched this guy talk to this little kid for like 10, 15 minutes. I heard him say he was Special Forces," Berk told Army Times. "Nothing added up with this dude."
Berk felt he needed to do something, so he turned on the camera and called the suspected faker over — and started recording. The video, initially posted by YouTube account Stolen Valor after Berk sent it to Guardians of Valor, has garnered more than 2 million views. Berk has also posted an extended version.
The alleged faker, identified as Sean Yetman, has been plagued with angry phone calls and even death threats, according to one woman who identified herself as Yetman's fiancee.
Filmed at the Oxford Valley Mall near Philadelphia, the video opens innocently enough.
"Hey, sir! Hey, my son would like to meet you he really admires guys in the Army!," Berk calls out to Yetman. The infantryman would later tell Army Times it wasn't his son, it was actually his girlfriend's child. All three were out shopping for the day.
Yetman, wearing staff sergeant insignia, enthusiastically joins Berk and the boy and quickly identifies his unit: 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment out of Fort Lewis. Then Berk wastes no time poking holes in Yetman's story.
Among the mistakes he calls out:
- Yetman is wearing 3 Combat Infantry Badges displayed on his uniform. He initially claimed to have earned them all in Afghanistan. When pressed that he would only be eligible to wear one, Yetman clarified that one was from Iraq and that the second Afghanistan CIB was when "my campaign took me outside of mission lines of Afghanistan." (The reality is that soldiers are only eligible to wear one CIB for fighting anywhere in support of the Global War on Terror.)
- Yetman's flag patch was too low on his arm and his boots weren't properly bloused. Berk also asked where his combat patch was. Yetman claimed he gave it to a kid.
- Asked where he went to basic, Yetman responded, "Fort Jackson." Berk responded: "You know infantry only goes to Fort Benning, right?" Yetmen then claimed he didn't start as a Ranger, but as a "driver of Humvees." He answered a phone instead of providing a valid MOS.
Yetman maintains he's not a "phony" in the video and at one point it appears both men are going to confront Yetman's "sergeant major," who was supposedly shopping with Yetman that day.
Instead, Berk starts to yell loudly about Yetman's fakery,
"You know it's illegal, right, what you're doing?" Berk said. "I've worn that f------ uniform and I've had friends get killed in Afghanistan wearing that f------ uniform."
Berk's girlfriend can be heard telling him, "Let's go. Stop it." And the video ends shortly after.
A spokesman at Army Human Resources Command said there is no record of a Sean Yetman in uniform. Attempts to reach him via phone and email were unsuccessful.
A court records search shows that a man named Sean Yetman, whose home is also listed as Philadelphia, was convicted in 2003 for impersonating a public servant.
Berk said he alerted the manager to the likelihood that Yetman was a fraud after learning that the Walking Company offered a military discount. He eventually waited outside the store so as not to start a scene there, instead choosing to confront him in the mall.
Adrienne Lally, Yetman's reported fiancee who declined to speak via phone, told Army Times via email that the blow-back to Yetman and his family has been vicious. Contact information and pictures of the family have been posted. Lally said Yetman lost his job and has had a nervous breakdown. (The Sean Yetman convicted of the 2003 crime is listed as having Adrienne Lally as a potential relative, according to Army Times research.)
"The phone calls do not stop, and we are now hearing death threats. All of this has us concerned for our children and their safety," she wrote. "He is a good man with a very big heart and this backlash has spiraled him into a deep depression."
Guardians of Valor received a message from Sean Yetman's Google+ account purportedly sent by his wife, asking for the video to be removed. (Lally said in an email from the address including her name, not his, that she sent the note and "finds it easier to refer to myself as a wife.")
Anthony Anderson, the operator of Guardians of Valor, has tried to delete Yetman's personal information.
Berk has tried to do the same on his YouTube post.
"That's a shame," Berk said, responding to the personal threats on Yetman's family. "His kids obviously have nothing to do with it. That's wrong. That wasn't my intention. My intention was to have this guy put on blast so he stops doing it."
Manpower officials confirmed Berk served from 2009 to 2012 and deployed twice to Afghanistan. He left service a sergeant.
In talking to Army Times, Berk named two friends of his who had died, and juxtaposed their sacrifice with Yetman's claims.
"How do their families feel about this guy walking around bragging as if he's sacrificed as much as they have? That's what got me fired up, when he made that comment that he's also lost friends in combat," Berk said. "I wish I didn't curse, but I'm passionate about it. It just wasn't right."
In 2012 the Supreme Court struck down a law that made impersonating a soldier illegal, citing free speech. In 2013 Congress passed and the president signed a new federal law that does criminalize misrepresenting oneself as having earned decorations or combat medals in order to obtain money or "tangible benefits."
Lally maintained that Yetman didn't receive any discounts on Black Friday.
Anderson, who runs Guardians of Valor to highlight those fraudulently claiming to have served, said his site gets just a few new videos every month (not all of which are posted for various reasons) but also gets more email than he can read.
While Berk disagrees with people threatening Yetman and said he had an idea the firestorm his video would start, Berk didn't back down from his decision to confront Yetman and posting the video, and has since gone on Fox News' Fox and Friends to talk about the incident.
"I'm just glad it's getting out there, hopefully he's ashamed and doesn't do it again," Berk said.