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The story of the Marine who wasn't

COLUMN ONE

Rick Strandlof, posing as a captain injured in Iraq, left the real veterans he'd helped confused and angry. He says even he doesn't understand why he did it.

July 08, 2009|DeeDee Correll | Correll writes for The Times

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Retired Marine Capt. Rick Duncan carried a list of phone numbers of those in the business of helping veterans. One was for the VA clinic in Colorado Springs, and in 2008 he pressed it upon Mike Flaherty, a young Army veteran struggling with depression.

He understood, Duncan told Flaherty. He'd been to Iraq three times. Attacked in Fallouja, he'd returned home with a metal plate in his head and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Flaherty made the call and saw a counselor; in time his depression lessened. He had his friend Rick Duncan to thank.

He would not learn the truth about Duncan for a year, and when he and other veterans did, it rolled over them with the weight of a tank: Rick Duncan had never served in Iraq, had never been wounded, had never been a Marine at all. He wasn't even Rick Duncan.

He was Rick Strandlof, and he was a fraud -- a young man with a prison record, a penchant for embellishment and a history of mental illness. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he would describe himself after his unveiling as a schizophrenic, saying, "I sometimes believe things other people know not to be true."

In a little more than a year, Strandlof convinced many other people to believe things that were not true too, establishing a high profile here as an advocate for veterans and a passionate activist against the war in Iraq.

Even after learning the truth, Flaherty recalled the sincerity in his friend's eyes. The man he knew as Rick Duncan seemed to genuinely care, and Flaherty was better for it. What was he to think now?

The first of many lies that Richard Glen Strandlof, 32, told was that he was from California. He made that admission recently from the El Paso County Jail, where he was being held on a traffic warrant as the FBI investigated whether he had committed fraud in posing as a Marine.

Actually, Strandlof said, he was from Montana. He spoke over a video link, his dark brown hair still cut in the buzz that was part of his military persona.

As a child, Strandlof said, he had the same fascination with the military that many boys do, playing with toy Army men. Even then, he made up stories about his adventures.

"He was very dramatic, making up stories," said Marcia Strandlof of Hot Springs, Mont., who once was married to Strandlof's grandfather. "It was an ongoing thing with Rick ever since he was little."

One story he told at 14 was true: He was gay. That, Strandlof said, left him estranged from his parents: "I've never forgiven them for that."

Eventually, he ran afoul of the law, convicted of forgery and passing bad checks in Montana. After prison, he moved to California and then Reno, and began to actively protest the war in Iraq.

While in Reno, Strandlof volunteered for two political action groups and was provided a rented Ford Explorer so he could help voters to the polls. But after the 2004 election, the SUV wasn't returned to the rental agency, and police spotted it months later near his apartment.

Strandlof pleaded guilty in July 2005 to car theft and was sentenced to probation. A judge ordered him to participate in a program for defendants with severe mental illnesses. She also ordered him to take his medications and read a book on bipolar disorder.

According to Reno officials, he later presented himself to them as a promoter intent on bringing a grand prix race to the city. Strandlof hinted at wealth, telling them that he lived in Incline Village, a high-income community near Lake Tahoe. In fact, he was living in a Reno apartment complex with his boyfriend.

The plan went nowhere, though he boasted to local media that he had brought in $25,000 at a fundraising event -- a claim the FBI is also investigating. By mid-2006, Strandlof the race promoter vanished, disconnecting his phone and taking down his website.

By mid-2007, Strandlof was in Colorado, where his boyfriend had gotten a job. "I just followed along," he recalled. What happened next, Strandlof said, is as much a mystery to him as anyone. He said he did not set out to assume a new identity.

Yet that's what he did, bursting onto the scene as Rick Duncan, an ex-Marine outspoken against the war. He also told new friends and the local media that he had been at the Pentagon when it was hit in the Sept. 11 attacks. It's unclear whether his boyfriend, who could not be reached for comment, went along with his activities.

But now his hair was cropped short, and a fellow war protester, Rich Haber, said Strandlof was more muscular than he recalled him being in Reno -- as if he'd worked out to develop a Marine physique. He dressed in close-fitting T-shirts and sometimes a camouflage hat.

One day, Duncan introduced himself to Joe Barrera, a Vietnam veteran and activist. "He just calls me out of the blue one day," Barrera said. "He talks really fast, so fast it's hard to understand what he's saying. He's got all kinds of wonderful ideas -- so eager to tell you."

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