Proof and reproof

Answers slow in coming in challenges to public official's military service record

Mike Sleeper was hosting trivia night at an Augusta-area restaurant recently when the subject of the Columbia County Board of Education came up.

A Georgia Southern University student in the group piped up, innocently but obliviously: "Hey - aren't they the ones with the fake Army Ranger?"

Awkward, for Sleeper himself is the board member under siege for being unable to produce proof of Army Ranger service, which he has claimed and allowed others to recognize him for.

Ever since a "stolen valor" website challenged Sleeper's claim months ago - and Sleeper has been slow to prove it - he's received a torrent of skepticism and criticism. He says he and his family have been attacked about it, and that he has been maligned in social media, email and phone calls from across the nation.

"The assault I've been under has been staggering," Sleeper says. "It's probably one of the worst ordeals I've been through. It's been pretty brutal. In some cases it is a mob mentality."

To be sure, Sleeper hasn't helped his own predicament much. When boldly challenged at a school board meeting to prove his military record in a blunt, read-aloud statement by board Chairman David Dekle, Sleeper didn't mount a defense. Instead he shot visual and verbal daggers at Dekle.

He just hasn't been forthcoming about it all - until an interview with us last week. The reason, he said, is because he thought it would all be cleared up easily and quickly.

He has since found that not to be the case - saying his military records are wrong. He's now hired a local lawyer, William Cassara, who says he is one of only two dozen or fewer lawyers in the country who deal in such military matters exclusively.

Cassara told us he has found that Sleeper's military records are indeed incomplete. He says he's received verbal confirmation that Sleeper attended Airborne School and is working to get written confirmation of that, as well as confirmation that Sleeper served with the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning.

Cassara says Sleeper went through the Ranger Indoctrination Program in late 1985/early 1986.

"I know from his follow-up assignment at Hunter Army Airfield," Cassara told us, "he obviously was Ranger-qualified or else he wouldn't have had that assignment. But again, it's not in his records."

It could take months to get it cleared up, he said.

"Once I get all of that documentation, we will petition the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records to correct his records to reflect those two schools. That process takes about a year."

The public will know much sooner than that, Cassara promised.

"Whatever our conclusions are, you'll know. We're not going to hide the ball; we're going to let you know."

Suspicions of Sleeper's truthfulness, which have dogged him for months, have only risen with each day that has passed. One veteran told us that, just to prove to himself that Sleeper could clear this up quickly, he obtained copies of his own records within a week or two.

Yet Cassara says he knows from experience, and from working on Sleeper's case, that it's more involved than that.

"People said 'well, it's really easy to fix this.' Well, it's not really easy. It takes a long time, because 1. records don't go back that far in many cases and 2. even once we get some form of verification, there is an entire process to getting the records corrected.

"I remember one person saying 'all you've got to do is look at his 201 (personnel) file. Well, his 201 file is wrong. And I see many people whose 201 files are wrong.

"Hopefully, within the next couple of months we'll have the whole puzzle fixed.

"I am convinced, based upon what I have seen, that he did attend Airborne School and then graduated and attended the Ranger Indoctrination Program."

One thing we do know, and which both Sleeper and his lawyer confirm, is that Sleeper received a General Discharge, under honorable conditions, after just a few years in the Army. Receiving a General Discharge is generally a sign of trouble - and Sleeper and Cassara both cite Sleeper's poor attitude as the culprit.

While Cassara says such discharges are "not that uncommon," Sleeper makes no excuses. While he didn't get into the specifics of his transgressions in the service, Sleeper laments, "It's something I'm not proud of. I was a young, stupid kid with an attitude."

The main bugaboo at this point is how long this has dragged on - which has only cast doubt on Sleeper. But his lawyer says he gets calls all the time from vets who served in the 1970s and '80s "that their military records are pretty devoid of any real detailed information about their service."

The bizarre thing about this imbroglio is that all parties may end up being right.

The public's intense desire to know the truth in this case is understandable - and real instances of "stolen valor" are rightly condemnable. Yet, attorney Cassara makes a compelling case that Sleeper is telling the truth.

The only fair and rational course of action, even considering the length of time this has taken, is for everyone to keep their powder dry. We just don't know the truth yet.

If Sleeper is proved to have lied, he should resign the school board. If his claims simply can't be proved satisfactorily, then we will have achieved a military stalemate.

If, on the other hand, Sleeper proves his claims, he may have been seriously wronged. But exactly who has wronged him? Even his lawyer says the public - aside from the barbs and reproaches aimed at Sleeper - has merely been asking good, unanswered questions.

"People reported that there appeared to be a gap in his records - that he was saying certain things that were not in his records," Cassara says. "That's a true statement. It's not in his records. We're working on getting it in his records.

"I don't see what would be (legally) actionable about that."

Under those circumstances, if Sleeper is proved correct, it's hard to say how he could be compensated - or by whom.

"I'm not even sure what that would entail," Cassara told us. "I would hope that once we get all of this done that y'all run a story and say, 'Hey, turns out he was telling the truth and he has these two certificates, and we're good to go.'

"As far as how you make somebody whole after that - we're not going to sue anybody. People have drawn some conclusions and we're going to hopefully correct those conclusions."

"It will never be like it was," Sleeper says. "My reputation has been damaged permanently.

"I will never be made whole."

At this point, everyone wants an answer.

Regardless of what that answer is, it seems clear that after this prolonged and bloody skirmish, Sleeper will become the answer to his own trivia question.