Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Fake Veteran: What’s not in my story

The Fake Veteran: What’s not in my story

Rick Strandlof knows people hate him. He understands why. But he also says he’s worked to change.

For the fourth time in several months, I sat across a high-top table at a Denver coffee shop Thursday morning and listened.

Until Thursday, he asked me to keep our conversations private.

Rick and I met briefly at a Christmas party in 2008. I didn’t realize we’d met until a friend called to say, “You know the fake vet who was arrested? He was at my holiday party.” I hardly remembered talking to Rick and couldn’t even tell you the topics we discussed.

Six months later, I interviewed him in the El Paso County Jail in 2009. He was arrested for a traffic charge but word of his deception had already made news.

He didn’t directly answer my questions. He told me he lied about being a Marine because of his untreated mental illness. The interview was awkward. There were long pauses after some of my questions.

Rick and I emailed once or twice the following year.

He went silent in 2011. This happened when I told him I was investigating reports that he had conned some of Denver’s Jewish community by telling them he was from Israel and wanted to help further their cause. He’d attended their private functions and participated in religious rituals.

I aired a story about it and wondered if he’d ever talk to me again.

He did. We met near the beginning of this year.

Thursday he agreed to let me write about our conversation. Rick does not want to go on TV but agreed to let me take still pictures.

Rick gave me this on the record statement about the Supreme Court decision, with which he agrees:

“Today's ruling does not negate the fact that my past behaviors hurt people. What I did was wrong.  Rather than it being an end, my hope is that this ruling is the beginning of a process of reconciliation that will allow for amends to be made for those wrongs.”

Rick agreed to let me share other aspects of his life, but declined to talk in detail on the record about his past mistakes.

He says he’s changed with the help of therapy, medication and group counseling. He’s in a long-term alcoholic recovery program. He attends at least one meeting a day.

“Today I’ll hit two,” he said. On Thursdays he attends his daily noon meeting and an evening one.

He showed me a coin with the number nine on it, which signifies he’s been sober for nine months.

Rick says he hits the gym three to four times a week.

“I’m not as hot as I used to be,” he said in a joking tone with a loud laugh.

Rick’s schedule was open to meet Thursday morning because he says he won’t start back to college until August. He’s hoping to get a degree in Earth and atmospheric science.

“I’ll be a junior then.”

His mission now: Find a job. That’s proving to be tough because companies easily find his past with a simple internet search.

Rick is working to establish friendships.

“There were 10 people at my birthday in May,” he told me. “It was one of my favorite birthdays. It was the opposite of my worst birthday.”

When the conversation turns serious, Rick often looks out the window or down at the floor. Staring at the ground he recalled a large party for his birthday in 2006.

“Everyone was high and drunk. No one knew my name,” he said.

I asked Rick, who is single and gay, if he is dating.

“I’m not in a place right now. My life is pretty full,” he said. “I went on a date with a guy recently who I met at the bike shop. We threw the disk (Frisbee) in the park.”

Rick said the two are just friends.

“He was looking for more than I could offer,” Rick said.

Rick has told me that he hopes time will show people he has changed.

Never once in our conversations has he blamed other people.