OSHKOSH — A former Navy SEAL scheduled to speak to the state American Legion convention in Oshkosh was abruptly barred from the dais after he raised questions about the Legion’s willingness to ensure members aren’t lying about their service.
Derrick Van Orden, a 26-year military veteran and resident of Butternut in northern Wisconsin, pointed to two veterans in particular who were allowed to serve as state Legion officials — including one who served as a state commander — despite having lied about or misrepresented the extent of their service.
Van Orden said he was the one who let the state Legion know its then-historian, Howard “Gordy” Clewell, had exaggerated his service during the Vietnam era by claiming to have been in Special Forces. He had actually been stationed in Germany as a social worker.
Clewell subsequently resigned. As of last month, he was married to Laurel Clewell, the state American Legion commander. She said then that she was seeking a divorce.
Last week, Van Orden provided the Wisconsin State Journal with Department of Defense documents showing that former state commander Robert Oliver, who died in 2011, had been dishonorably discharged and otherwise untruthful about his service, and he claimed that the state commander at the time he died, Denise Rohan, covered it up.
Oliver served several times as the leader of the Montello American Legion post, according to his obituary. In 1989, he was the state commander. Rohan is currently the Legion’s national commander.
Van Orden said he intended to raise Oliver’s case during his presentation, as well as what he describes as the Legion’s unwillingness to keep veterans who lie about their service out of the organization.
Rohan acknowledged that she knew shortly after Oliver died that he had been dishonorably discharged and therefore ineligible for American Legion membership, but said she still allowed the Legion to honor him as part of his funeral services to spare his grieving family.
“Was now the time to say this guy’s not the hero you think he is?” she asked. “I still stick by that decision.”
In prepared remarks delivered Saturday at the convention, Rohan called the news about Oliver’s ineligibility “a breakdown of American Legion policy.” In an interview afterward, she said policies to ensure prospective members are who they say they are were formally reaffirmed in May.
Van Orden points to a variety of groups that seek to expose those who are lying about their service or falsely claiming to be veterans and says it’s likely many Legion members are among the fraudsters.
Most recently a Legion member since 2014, Van Orden said his broader goal is to ensure Legion members who aren’t being truthful about their pasts don’t undermine the organization’s ability to help younger veterans cope with the trauma they’ve experienced during wartime.
“I take this super seriously,” he said, pointing to veterans he’s known who have been killed in combat or committed suicide. “That is the beginning and end of my agenda.”
Younger vets like standing around drinking in bars as much as older vets like standing around drinking at their local Legion posts, he quipped. “They just don’t like standing around bars drinking with liars.”
Rohan and David Gough, a former national vice commander, said they were confident systems to verify members’ service are being followed at the state and national levels, but Gough said they can’t be as confident they are being followed at the local level.
Rohan said any person questioning the Legion’s membership-vetting process without evidence is “just guessing,” and “as President Trump would say, that’s fake news.”
Amber Nikolai, state adjutant of the Wisconsin American Legion, said she has a lot of respect for Van Orden but his presentation was canceled only a few hours before he was to give it because it wasn’t appropriate for the convention, which was marking the department’s 100th anniversary.
“It is important and we want to address the issues,” she said. “It’s just that this isn’t the forum.”
Van Orden said he met privately Saturday afternoon with Rohan but wasn’t convinced that the Legion will do a better job making sure members are telling the truth about their service, and that officials have been less than eager to hear what he has to say in the past.
Roland Crandall, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who was attending the convention, said there are times members “may be exaggerating what happened to you in the service,” but he didn’t see it as a major problem and said that the post he leads in Pewaukee is careful to check prospective members’ Department of Defense documents outlining their service.
Legion members James Lynn, of Eagle River, and Kenneth Kilgas, of Appleton, acknowledged that there are vets who will lie about their service, but Kilgas said it’s rare and Lynn said the Legion has been doing a better job in recent years of catching those who aren’t honest.
“There are some and we’re weeding them out,” Lynn said.
Wisconsin is among several states that have so-called “stolen valor” laws, which make lying about military service a crime. There’s a similar federal law as well.