The Making of a Fake War Hero: An American Who Reinvented Himself as a Social-Media Soldier in Ukraine Is Accused of ‘Stolen Valor’

July 17, 2023
Ukrainian territorial defence forces patrol a public park at sunset.

Read the original article on Business Insider.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a 48-year-old American veteran and building contractor from Connecticut named James Vasquez was one of thousands of volunteers who went to join the fight.

He quickly became one of the most recognizable faces of the foreign fighters in Ukraine, often going viral with his battlefield updates and dramatic social-media posts purportedly from the front lines.

In his videos and posts, he bragged about capturing Russians and taking out tanks, was regularly interviewed by the news media, and made catchy claims including that he imagined the “punchable” Tucker Carlson when preparing for battle.

He gained more than 400,000 followers on Twitter and even got a shout-out from Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who called for his account to be verified.

But on the ground in Ukraine, it was an open secret that Vasquez was not the war hero his social-media profiles projected him to be.

Four foreign fighters and volunteers in Ukraine who knew Vasquez told Insider it was widely known he wasn’t actually taking part in front-line fighting.

Instead, they allege that Vasquez would enter areas where battles had taken place, take videos with destroyed equipment, and claim battlefield achievements as his own.

April Huggett, a Canadian volunteer who knew Vasquez, told Insider in a text message that he would exaggerate how close to the action he was, often going to areas near where there was heavy fighting and pretending he was in the thick of it.

In one instance in January, Vasquez claimed on Twitter that he was heading to Soledar, where intense fighting was reported to be raging.

But it was later revealed that the Ukrainian army had quietly withdrawn days before Vasquez said he was heading there — suggesting that there would have been no fight for him to join when he arrived.

Along with appearing to exaggerate his activities on the ground, there were also occasions where he appeared to behave outright irresponsibly.

He, at one point, posted a battlefield update that gave away the exact location of the unit he was with, possibly jeopardizing its safety.

‘I had to tell a million lies to get ahead’

Vasquez often spoke about his military background, claiming that he was a sergeant and that he had been in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm and in Iraq after 9/11.

A Pentagon representative, however, told Insider that Vasquez was never deployed to either of those places — or anywhere else.

Vasquez was a fuel and electrical systems repairer in the New York National Guard from July 1992 to July 1993 and in the Army Reserve from July 1993 to August 2003, the Pentagon said. He left the Army Reserve as a private first class, which is one of the Army’s lowest ranks.

When confronted by The New York Times in March, Vasquez acknowledged misrepresenting his military record and said he’d been kicked out of the Army, but he would not reveal the circumstances of his discharge.

“I had to tell a million lies to get ahead,” Vasquez told the Times. “I didn’t realize it was going to come to this.”

Insider was unable to reach Vasquez for comment, as his social-media profiles have been deactivated and calls to two phone numbers for him provided by sources went unanswered.

In the days before the Times article came out, Vasquez posted a series of cryptic tweets about “negative people” winning and called himself “a ghost.” He then deleted his Twitter page and went quiet for several months before resurfacing online briefly in June.

Not only did he apparently lie about his military background to join the fight in Ukraine, but it turned out he had lied about his service for much of his life to even those closest to him.

Tina Vasquez, his ex-wife, who had supported his decision to go to Ukraine while they were still married, told The New York Post in April that he had also lied to her about his past.

She told the paper that she “was just as shocked as anybody else” to learn that her former partner had exaggerated his military experience.

“I believed him,” she said. “The war stories that had supposedly happened brought tears to his eyes. I felt terrible for what he had to go through and endure — and then come to find out it was all just a lie.

“Here I am, I’m with him for 11 years and I don’t even know the man I married.”

The undoing of a war hero

Vasquez spent about a year posting updates — purportedly from the front lines in Ukraine — about fighting with various units.

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, American who is a junior sergeant with the Ukrainian army and works with the media department of the Territorial Defense Forces, was one of the first people with a social-media following to publicly accuse Vasquez of being a fraud in a tweet in March.

She wrote that Vasquez “is not and has not been” in Ukraine’s armed forces and that he could not legally go on missions since he did not have a contract.

“I met James Vasquez three times for a total of about four hours,” she told Insider. “During our last meeting, in the presence of another person, he gave himself up and confirmed what I had known since last summer, that he was never a member of the AFU,” referring to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

“That night he stated clearly he never had a contract nor had he ever been paid. This was in January. It was the last time I saw him.”

April Huggett, 35, a Canadian volunteer who came to Ukraine in December, told Insider that she soon met Vasquez and the two formed a relationship.

Huggett said that she came to Ukraine alone, having broken up with her boyfriend over her decision to go, and found comfort in having Vasquez as someone to talk to.

“I did realize very quickly he was sitting comfy right in Maidan and he was not leaving Kyiv very often,” she told Insider over text, referring to the capital city’s central district.

“He also drank so much,” she said.

Huggett said she began to have suspicions about his claims about his military background, and after doing some digging, discovered that he had wildly exaggerated his experience.

“One time he was really drunk and he was crying really hard about this friend of his that had his head blown off by a sniper in front of him in Iraq and how that really messed him up,” she said. “I realized that story never could have happened.”

She and other sources told Insider that Vasquez openly bragged about his plans to cash in on his newfound fame.

“James just kept talking about becoming a millionaire after this,” Huggett said.

Tim, an American man working with the Ukrainian army and speaking to Insider on the condition of withholding his last name, said that Vasquez had made similar comments to him.

“James said, and I quote, ‘I’m never gonna go back to work as a handyman. I’m probably never gonna have to work again after this war. I’m gonna be famous,'” he told Insider.

Among all the falsehoods, Huggett said that what was most upsetting to her was how Vasquez leveraged the combat death of the Ukrainian-born British fighter Viktor Yatsunyk for personal gain, speaking extensively online and to the media about how the loss of his “friend” had affected him.

“He used Viktor’s death as another stepping stone to legitimize his own actions in Ukraine. That bothers me more than anything else,” she said. “His stolen valor knows no end.”

Eventually, Huggett decided to distance herself from Vasquez — as she explained to Insider, she doesn’t like “liars.”

When Ashton-Cirillo took to Twitter to expose Vasquez, Huggett said she felt compelled to make a video to back her up.

Huggett said she was worried about angering Vasquez and began to fear for her safety.

“I got a phone call from a friend of James’ that was concerned. He told me to watch my back and that James was drinking a lot and talking crazy. That he was [going] to kill me and another friend of mine,” she said.

“James messaged me saying I didn’t have to leave my kids, I abandoned him, and he was going to do the same thing to me that I did to him and to ‘get ready,'” she said, adding that she has since been laying low in Ukraine and trying to keep him from knowing her whereabouts.

After his social-media accounts were deactivated, Vasquez briefly resurfaced on Twitter in June to attack Huggett and preemptively discredit anything she might say about him.

“I’ve received a lot of messages @DefactoHumanity, or as I know her, April has gone on a campaign accusing me of going to kill her and other nonsense,” he wrote.

He went on to claim that Huggett was simply “scorned” because she had learned he was with another woman in Ukraine and denied ever threatening her life.

Huggett told Insider: “I’m tired, but I’m not sorry I exposed the lying scammer. I’m also not sorry that I made the video. Now at least if I am murdered or have a suspicious death, someone will know where to look.”

“We took away his fame and fortune, we made people see him for the disgrace he is. Ukrainians will be better off because of it, and to me, that is the only thing that matters,” she said.

On an “awesome very dangerous vacation”

At the beginning of the war, the vetting process for foreign fighters coming to Ukraine was extremely lax. Vasquez, as part of the first wave of arrivals, was able to take advantage of the system and slip through the cracks.

Although many foreign volunteers in Ukraine have made a significant contribution to its war effort, many outlets have reported on underqualified and overzealous foreigners who have wreaked havoc, including an American who defected to Russia.

Some of them have been called war tourists, a term to describe thrill seekers in a war zone.

In one tweet from March of last year, Vasquez compared his time in Ukraine to being an “awesome very dangerous vacation.”

He also repeatedly suggested that he did not understand the rules of warfare, or at least that he thought they did not apply to him.

On one occasion, he claimed to have taken part in capturing a soldier from the mercenary Wagner Group and shared a photo of him.

“This is a non UN country,” he wrote in a tweet in response. “I don’t think I have to worry about the Geneva convention here.”

But Vasquez’s claims were not accurate – Ukraine is part of the United Nations, and the Geneva Conventions, which protect prisoners of war, apply to all conflicts.

He ‘had a plan, a scheme, and a design’

Tim, an American known online as Captain Peg Leg, told Insider that he came across Vasquez while working in Ukraine as a general advisor to the armed forces.

He said that the pair communicated via text for several weeks in April and May of last year until Vasquez blocked him.

Tim said that he was working with Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces at the time and had been tasked with recruiting capable foreign fighters to help train them. He reached out to Vasquez, who had developed quite a large online following.

As they corresponded, Tim said he started to notice several red flags.

He claims that Vasquez boasted about his online fame and having Ukrainian soldiers follow him and said that he was building his own “private army.”

Tim also claims Vasquez admitted that he had exaggerated his army credentials and said he planned to cash in on his wartime fame.

He was unable to provide screenshots of the conversations with Vasquez as he said the chat history on his phone had been deleted. However, another source showed Insider screenshots of a conversation with Tim in June 2022 in which the two discussed Vasquez being a fraud.

Tim said he was also alarmed by the videos Vasquez was posting, which he said were “dubious” and reckless.

He said that he tried to sound the alarm about Vasquez on Twitter but was met with death threats from Vasquez’s followers, who told Tim he was just “jealous.”

He said that a lot of the aggression was led by Vasquez himself.

“James routinely went scorched earth on anyone that questioned anything he was doing, blocked them, encouraged his followers to block them. And nobody wanted to believe that James would take advantage of the war and take advantage of people,” Tim said.

“You will hear people say that James is a good man, James had good intentions, and things got a bit out of control. And that’s categorically false. James, from the start of that conflict, had a plan, a scheme, and a design. It was premeditated,” he said.

Despite a growing mountain of falsehoods, Vasquez was able to become a celebrated social-media hero and was covered breathlessly by various media outlets — including Insider — that touted him as a hero.

He was framed as a fearless fighter who had selflessly left his life behind and sold his Connecticut home to focus on the war.

Ashton-Cirillo told Insider: “As someone who notified a large media outlet about James Vasquez in June of 2022 and stated to them clearly that Vasquez had no combat experience and was filming fake fight scenes, it is disgraceful that they and so many other journalists advanced his lies for so long.”

“These acts of media malpractice not only gaslit me and many others, they helped feed the Russian propaganda machine,” she continued. “Luckily, fundraising for charities focused on the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been able to emerge unscathed from this debacle as have the reputations of every real foreign soldier.”

Guns, money, and battalions

Vasquez frequently posted images of weapons, including American guns, that he said he had been given, but it is unclear where he obtained them.

He did not have a contract with the Ukrainian army or the International Legion so he wouldn’t have been provided with weapons from any official authorities.

When asked by The New York Times in March where he got the guns, he responded: “I’m not exactly sure,” and added that they were “brand-new, out of the box, and we have plenty.”

Two sources told Insider that Vasquez had boasted about getting weapons on the black market. Insider was unable to verify those claims.

(He once told a local Connecticut newspaper, The Hour: “If you want anything in Ukraine, and you got money and you know a couple of people, you can get it.”)

Another source of contention is how Vasquez used his platform to solicit donations from his followers to buy equipment for soldiers. Some of this money was raised for Ripley’s Heroes, a US-based charity organization for which he was a prominent representative.

Ripley’s Heroes said it had raised over $1 million over the past year, but the organization has faced questions about its spending, as The New York Times previously reported. As of March, some of the money appeared to have been spent on equipment that hadn’t reached its intended destination.

Vasquez often talked about fighting with various units — at one point, he said he was with a “special forces unit” and later said he was fighting with the Da Vinci Wolves battalion.

John, not his real name, an American man who’s part of a group fighting in Ukraine called the 13th group Wolverines, told Insider under the condition of anonymity that Vasquez likely overstated his relationship with the battalion.

John, who has been in Ukraine since the wider conflict with Russia began in 2014, said that he had been friendly with Da Vinci for some time. He told Insider that he saw Vasquez at the young battalion commander’s funeral, which was attended by many, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

John said that Vasquez, who was wearing a Da Vinci Wolves patch on his uniform, stuck out like a sore thumb: He didn’t mingle with the other attendees but instead filmed himself for a video that was later posted on social media.

“Everybody’s kneeling, their hands over their hearts, you know, to show respect and solidarity with each other in grief … and James is up there just filming,” John said. “All these guys from Da Vinci’s team are around and they’re wearing the same patch right, but nobody recognizes him. Nobody comes up and says hi.”

The Wolves did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

A source linked to the Ukrainian army, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Insider that Vasquez had returned to Ukraine as of early June.

“The National Police in conjunction with the SBU” — the Security Service of Ukraine — “has launched an investigation into both his possession of illegal weapons and his illicit fundraising,” the source said.

‘James’ visibility was great, until it wasn’t anymore’

For many foreign fighters, joining the war can be a chance to reinvent, redeem, or prove themselves.

“You see, over and over again, these broken people that showed up at the war. And they saw it from day one as an opportunity to have a new life to become a social-media hero, whatever you want to call it,” Tim said.

“I had my own things to gain by going to Ukraine,” he added. “I’m not blameless. I have one leg; it’s a recent amputation. And one of the reasons that I went was to feel like a whole human being again by helping other people.”

Malcolm Nance, a former MSNBC analyst who is now part of Ukraine’s International Legion, was the only prominent foreign fighter to defend Vasquez after his falsehoods were revealed.

“James was NOT fake, he was troubled. He did a lot for Ukraine but has challenges to face. Respect what he did do,” he wrote on Twitter.

He described Vasquez as “a soldier in need of care on several levels” and criticized those who spoke out against him. Nance declined to speak with Insider on the record.

Part of the debate is whether Vasquez did any good in Ukraine despite his lies.

While sources told Insider that Vasquez did not help in terms of front-line fighting, his social-media presence did have a positive effect — at least for a time.

“James certainly helped with morale,” Tim said. “James certainly helped with public relations. He did, inadvertently, a lot of good. James’ visibility was great, until it wasn’t anymore.”

© Copyright 2023 Business Insider. All rights reserved. 



Please rate this CIBA article

0 / 5 Number Of Votes: 1

Vote

Latest News Articles