A Bend-based tactical training company severed ties with a co-owner recently after the founder said he learned his business partner lied about his military service.
Joel Lisson, 57, was co-owner and a wilderness survival instructor at Bend-based REACT Training Systems. Shawn Jewell, the company’s founder and other co-owner, said Lisson had earned his status as a trainer due to his tales of military experience in the elite Special Forces of the U.S. Army — the Green Berets.
“This concept that he was a fake or a fraud never entered my mind,” said Jewell, 52.
Lisson and Jewell met in 2006, and a mutual friend told Jewell of Lisson’s storied past, Jewell said. Along with his stories about his time and wounds as a Green Beret, Jewell said Lisson had a shadowbox full of medals — including a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Badge. There was also a Special Forces certificate, a green beret and a trophy with an inscription saying he’d been “Soldier of the Year 1983” for the 5th Special Forces Group.
Now Jewell says he is sure the stories weren’t true, and he believes Lisson hadn’t earned the awards.
“We should have, in retrospect, looked more deeply, but we didn’t,” Jewell said.
Lisson didn’t come to the door of his Bend home when The Bulletin stopped by last week. Instead a woman with a dog answered. After checking with Lisson about an interview request, she passed a card for Christopher Heaps, a Bend attorney, and said to talk to him.
Asked about the questions surrounding his client’s military service record, Heaps said, “We don’t have any comment on it.”
Heaps also said Lisson was not interested in speaking with the newspaper.
If Lisson is indeed a fraud, he wouldn’t be the first in Central Oregon to conjure up phony military exploits. Former U.S. Rep. Wes Cooley, R-Powell Butte, didn’t run for re-election in 1996 after questions arose about his claim in the voter guide that he served in the Special Forces during the Korean War. The next year he pleaded guilty to lying about his military record in Marion County Circuit Court. He was fined and sentenced to 100 hours of community service.
In 1999 the Oregon National Guard didn’t renew the contract of Keith Bonner, who was the director of the Oregon Youth ChalleNGe Program near Bend, after veterans groups questioned Bonner representing himself as a former Navy SEAL. The groups said they found documentation that Bonner hadn’t been a SEAL despite his wearing a uniform with a SEAL insignia at events for the military-structured youth program.
Questions about Lisson started earlier this fall, as REACT began construction on a training center about 30 miles east of Bend off state Highway 27. The acronym in the company’s name stands for “Reality Environment Applied Combat Tactics,” and the company offers hand-to-hand, firearm and other training to local, state and federal agencies, as well as citizens.
“Everything we do is based on our credentials,” Jewell said.
Lisson was an instructor for REACT but rarely led classes beyond the basics, Jewell said. He’d often sit out instruction, Jewell said, citing pain from his wounds suffered while with the Special Forces.
Jewell said Lisson didn’t obtain some of the permits he said he would for buildings on the complex. It made him wonder about Lisson and his word.
For Jewell’s daughter, Crystal Jewell, 27, the permit issue added to the skepticism she had about her dad’s business partner, whom she started working with in August. She joined her father’s company to be a trainer about a year and a half ago and started working at the training facility in August. Crystal Jewell served in the Air Force in 2006 and 2007. She said things she learned in the military about how to display awards made her suspect Lisson was a fake. And she thought the combination of trainings and experience he claimed didn’t make sense.
“Just certain things he was saying just wasn’t adding up,” she said, so she looked online and found websites where people exposed military-valor impostors.
The Jewells got in touch with retired Master Sgt. Jeff “J.D.” Hinton, who served in the Special Forces. Hinton runs a website called professionalsoldiers.com.
“They wanted to find out if basically what he was telling was true,” said Hinton, who lives in Arizona.
Hinton said he was in the 5th Special Forces Group, the same group Shawn Jewell said Lisson claims to have been part of when in the Army, and he served around the same time Lisson would have in the 1980s. But Hinton doesn’t remember Lisson being one of his fellow soldiers.
Based in Fort Campbell in Kentucky, the 5th Special Forces Group currently has a force of about 2,000 people, and it doesn’t keep a public running list of who has served, said Maj. Brandon Bissell, of the group. He said he didn’t have anything to verify whether Lisson was ever in the 5th Special Forces Group.
“That is not something that we are going to be able to confirm,” he said.
Lisson did serve in the U.S. Army, Hinton said, just not with the Green Berets. Hinton contacted Mary Schantag, chairwoman of the board for FakeWarriors.com, to uncover what they say is Lisson’s real military background. Schantag, of Missouri, has been researching military service records for 24 years. It began as a project with her late husband, Chuck Schantag, to document the experiences of prisoners of war. As they did so, they learned there were people claiming to be POWs who weren’t, so she now operates two networks, one to tell true POW stories and one to expose liars. Along the way, Schantag has become adept at acquiring and reviewing military service records.
Schantag found records that show Lisson was in active duty from Nov. 4, 1980, to Nov. 2, 1983, and then went into the reserves from Nov. 3, 1983, until Nov. 3, 1986. He enlisted at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, started his training there and then spent nearly three months training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas before going to Hawaii, according to the records. In Hawaii, he was stationed at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, where he was trained and then worked as a patient-care specialist. His active service ended at Tripler, and then he was listed as drill sergeant while in the reserves.
Decorations and awards for Lisson in the records provided by Schantag are an Army Service Ribbon, Sharpshooter Badge, Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal and Armed Forces Reserve Medal. There is no mention of a Purple Heart, Bronze Star or Combat Infantry Badge. The records also don’t reference the Special Forces or a Soldier of the Year award.
The Bulletin has also submitted a request to the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri for Lisson’s records, but it will likely be weeks before there is a response from the agency.
Stories of people claiming more military experience or accolades than they actually have are not new to Hinton, Schantag or Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran and author of “Restoring Valor,” a book set to be released in February.
Sterner and his wife, Pam Sterner, have crusaded for years against people claiming to have earned military honors that they haven’t. Doug Sterner said Pam Sterner helped with the paperwork for the Stolen Valor Act of 2012 and the follow-up Stolen Valor Act of 2013, which became law in June. The Stolen Valor Act of 2012 was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the original law violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The revised law focused on people using claims of military accolades to gain money, property or other tangible benefit.
“It is a common and prevalent problem, and we felt it needed to be addressed,” Doug Sterner said.
Sterner was not familiar with Lisson but said he and his wife had investigated similar situations of people potentially using claims of military experience and honors to earn recognition, money and jobs.
While glad the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 became law, Schantag said federal prosecutors aren’t using it.
“Charges right now are very, very rare,” she said.
Court records show there is not a federal case against Lisson.
Shawn Jewell, Lisson’s former business partner, has distanced himself from Lisson in what he said is an effort to save his reputation and the business.
On REACT’s website, Jewell posted this message:
“Joel E. Lisson is no longer connected in any way to REACT Training Systems as of Oct. 2013. All business agreements, teaching credentials, certifications or services rendered by Mr. Lisson have been removed and are no longer associated in any way to REACT. We apologize for any inconvenience, but due to fraudulent credentials and violations of REACT policies by the actions of Mr. Lisson, REACT has severed its relationship with and disavows all actions associated with Mr. Lisson. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any concerns or questions.”
Jewell said he’s also called and met with clients to personally apologize.
“My goal is to pick up the pieces,” Jewell said.
He said he hasn’t talked to Lisson, although he’s tried.
“We just want to move forward,” Jewell said. “Move on.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7812, firstname.lastname@example.org.