‘Marketplace’ retracts commentary from man who claimed to be an Army sniper, baseball player

American Public Media’s “Marketplace” program has retracted a commentary it aired this week from a man who’s been camping out at Occupy Oakland and claimed to be an ex-Army sniper.

Leo Webb’s commentary, “Returning veteran has few marketable skills,” said he had 17 confirmed kills in Iraq and was once a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs Double A club. (The post was tagged with the phrase “My Life Is True.”) Neither his Army service nor his claim about the Cubs was true. Here’s the editor’s note now posted to the site:

Editor’s Note: A commentary by Leo Webb, ”Returning veteran has few marketable skills,” prompted questions from listeners about Webb’s account of his service as an Army sniper in Iraq. A subsequent investigation found that the Army has no record of Webb. Webb also said he pitched for a Chicago Cubs minor-league team. Inquiries to the Cubs and to Minor League Baseball found no record of Webb. Marketplace has an obligation to provide accurate information. That was not met in this commentary. It has been retracted and the text and audio have been removed from the web site.

Webb’s claims raised flags for some listeners and readers prior to the retraction. For example, one reader posted this comment to the story on the Marketplace website:

Before we get too concerned about what “*real* support” might exist for “veterans like Mr. Webb,” let’s make sure Mr. Webb actually exists.

The essay gives relatively few details allowing any checking, but there are a few, such as the guy’s name, that he supposedly was a pitcher in the Chicago Cubs minor league system, reaching as high as AA ball before having arm problems, that he was a military sniper in Iraq, and that he was present during a fatal shooting back in the states just outside of a Rite-Aid store…. somewhere. Nothing resembling a city or state.

… Forgive my skeptical nature, but the entire report sounds bogus to me.

This Ain’t Hell, a blog run by a group of veterans, also raised questions early on. The phrase “watched half my squadron die” rang false for them (“whatever the hell a squadron is”). They reached out to Marketplace to raise concerns about the piece and received this response from Mark Trautwein, who edits the Perspectives listener feedback series for KQED:

Mr. Webb has been subsequently placed in a VA live-in care facility specializing in PTSD so I’m unable to seek his response to your comment at this time.

The Webb commentary on the Marketplace site is identified as being part of a series called Perspectives. I emailed Trautwein to ask for additional details about how the piece was put together and was retracted. I’ll update with any response.

After this post was published, I heard from Clay Lambert, who blogged about the questionable claims in Webb’s commentary on Jan. 13, after Webb’s piece first aired on KQED on Jan. 11. The station has since removed the audio from its site and added a note stating:

KQED has since learned that efforts to locate records to support either claim have been unsuccessful and significant elements of his commentary cannot be confirmed. We apologize to our listeners.

You can also see a couple of reader comments that raise questions about Webb’s story.

Lambert wrote on his blog:

I listened to a very heart-felt opinion piece on the radio from this guy. He claimed to be an Iraq war veteran, saying that he returned only to find more violence in the streets during Occupy protests. He claims he was wrongly arrested. That being a soldier taught him to drink. He also says he was once a promising pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization. Well, that is something that can be checked. So I did.

Thursday, a Chicago Cubs media guy told me that the name Leo Webb didn’t “pop up on any of our electronic databases.” To be fair, that isn’t the final word. He promised to check paper files and get back to me with the definitive word. I fully suspect Webb is telling the truth. In fact, by checking, I have an opportunity to lend credence to the rest of his story. Or call into question everything else he says in his piece.

As the Marketplace editor’s note explains, the text and audio have been removed from the site, but This Ain’t Hell grabbed a screenshot:

Thanks to @ivanoransky for the tip!

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  • jamie461

    Really excellent information and analysis of this story. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=207301781 Scott Lyon

    Hopefully this serves as a warning to the next journalist who gets spoon-fed a tale of woe by someone purporting to be a war-hardened veteran and blaming his military service for every problem in his life. In that spirit, here’s a few facts about the military (and some advice) that the average civilian probably doesn’t know, and that often could have been used by a journalist to save face before they published some liar’s personal fairy tale:

    1. Snipers, SEALS, rangers, force recon, etc are ALL volunteers – there is no “I didn’t want to do this, but the military made me” when it comes to elite combat forces. This is what clued a lot of people familiar with the military into Leo Webb’s lies – fakers love to pretend they were so awesome at shooting, etc., that they were personally selected for these opportunities. It also conveniently relieves them of the responsibility of all their subsequent actions (e.g. killing 17 people). The military doesn’t work this way – this is a creation of Hollywood.

    2. There are far fewer living POWs than most realize. Somewhere around 700 POWs returned from Vietnam alive. The number from the Gulf War, and OIF/OEF is considerably lower, such that each has likely merited prior media coverage. If the guy is younger than 50 and says he was a POW, it ought to take little more than a google search to confirm. If he says he was a Vietnam POW, contact the POW Network. They take great interest in who is claiming this status, and will quickly let you know the veracity of such a claim. There has never been a substantiated claim of a POW whose POW status was not in official government records.

    3. There are no secret military schools. Anyone who says they went through secret military training and that’s why there is no record of it, is a liar. Missions may be secret. Training is not. In fact, be generally skeptical of anyone who throws up a “classified information” wall whenever someone starts probing their dubious story. If they were that concerned about classified information, they wouldn’t tell you about any of it.

    4. Be likewise skeptical of someone loudly touting the medals they received, or how many people they killed. It’s no guarantee that they’re lying, but it’s not typical of most veterans to make their stories all about themselves. In fact, being generally skeptical of anything that sounds like a movie script is good advice. Ask for DD214s, award citations, names of people and units they served with, and places where they served, and specific dates when they did. It seems like basic journalistic diligence, but hardly a week goes by without some journalist failing to do it and embarrassing themselves.

    5. Pay attention to the language! Military terms have very specific meanings, and it’s unlikely that a real veteran would get it wrong. Had a journalist looked in to the claim that Leo Webb watched “half his squadron die” he would have known immediately the guy was a phony. First off, “squadron” is typically an Air Force term. It’s still rarely used by certain Army units, but it refers to a battalion-sized element. Leo Webb’s unit would have to have suffered 400-600 deaths in order for his statement to be true. No single military unit has seen anywhere near that level of loss in these wars.

    6. If you have the time, file a FOIA request for the person’s military records through the NPRC. If you don’t, there is a huge subculture of military bloggers, many of whom will gladly help you address the plausibility of claims of service, or direct you to someone who can.

    As the adage goes “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”