Republican Assemblyman Randy Voepel is taking heavy flak from a GOP rival, who along with another Navy veteran is accusing the former Santee mayor of having “Stolen Valor.”
Monday morning on KUSI TV, 30-year Navy SEAL veteran Larry Wilske brought up claims by retired Master Chief Petty Officer Terence Hoey* that Voepel misrepresented his military service record.
Candidate Wilske said the 71st Assembly District incumbent has boasted he was awarded a Purple Heart, a combat action ribbon and “served in the jungles of Vietnam.”
“None of that is true,” Wilske said. “That’s a real slap in the face of people who also served honorably and those who were left behind.”
Lying about one’s service record is against state and federal law and can lead to removal from office.
Hours before Hoey detailed his evidence at a Monday afternoon press conference in front of the USS Midway Museum, Voepel chief of staff Mason Herron sent Times of San Diego an image of Voepel’s discharge papers indicating he had several honors, including a “combat action ribbon.”
A Purple Heart — denoting being wounded or killed while in action — isn’t listed.
But Herron said Voepel has never claimed to have earned a Purple Heart —”either in prior campaign materials, interviews, news stories, etc.”
Herron said Voepel won’t respond to Hoey’s accusations, first made online March 29 in a blog called thisainthell. (Hoey says he and others began investigating after a March 15 post by a Wilske aide.)
“Basically what we have is a political opponent lobbing either false or noncredible accusations in an effort to gain traction for his own campaign,” Herron said via email.
“The previous allegations either aren’t sourced from anything (simple quotes on a blog that are unattributed) or are contradicted by the Assemblyman’s own paperwork.”
Herron said that when the proponents of the “Stolen Valor” cause were shown Hoey’s paperwork, they called it a forgery.
“I’ve spoken to other reporters who have performed their own individual investigations and confirmed Randy’s records are consistent with his paperwork,” Herron said. “Mr. Voepel served on the USS Buchanan, including during the 1972 Easter Offensive, when the ship came under fire and the entire crew was awarded with the Combat Action Ribbon.”
In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Hoey said he suspects that the copy of Voepel’s discharge form — called a DD214 — is from the National Archives and may have been altered. He called on Voepel to release his own personal copy of the form.
“We counted no less than 15 errors on that DD214 — significant errors — including redactions and corrections in the areas where they are not permitted,” Hoey said. ‘We need to find the original. … Now it’s up to the press to look into that. My job is done here.”
(Herron did not respond to a request for Voepel’s version of the DD214.)
A Freedom of Information Act request by Hoey led to a document that lists Voepel as receiving the “Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device” but not the “Vietnam Campaign Medal Combat Action Ribbon.” In that DD214, COMBAT ACTION RIBBON is typed above a series of X’s, which might originally have stood for WITH DEVICE (an addendum badge).
Hoey says any alteration voids the form.
But when The San Diego Union-Tribune asked for Voepel’s service record April 2 from public affairs at the Navy Personnel Command, the document mentioned his receiving the combat action ribbon.
“Separately, the Los Angeles Times obtained a copy of Voepel’s service record on Jan. 19, 2017, from the National Personnel Records Center, a part of the National Archives,” the U-T reported. The Times copy also confirmed the combat ribbon.
Both Hoey and Wilske say they were members of military promotion boards, with Hoey declaring: “When I’m looking at these [service] records, I am the authority.”
Said Wilske: “To say the Buchanan got a combat action ribbon and assume that [Voepel] got it as well is a far reach.”
In his posts — including one on LinkedIn — Hoey called Voepel a “marginally adequate sailor at best and served for a brief period onboard the great ship USS Buchanan.”
Hoey, who now works in law enforcement and security, said Voepel served less time at sea “than I did cleaning steam and water drums in 1200 psi D-Type propulsion boilers and standing in the chow line waiting for my daily dose of SOS.”
Voepel, according to Hoey, falsely claims he earned a combat action ribbon. (Hoey says Voepel wears the ribbon upside down “like a clown.”)
Hoey also said Voepel, 67, claims to have been trained by the Viet Cong — North Vietnamese troops — and spent time in the jungles of Vietnam. Hoey calls such assertions “equal disgusting and comedy gold.”
“With respect to Voepel’s claims of serving in the brown-water Navy, operating in ravines and inner coastal waterways of Vietnam, it is quite insulting,” Hoey said in a second interview. “No. 1, we know he didn’t. So he’s a valor thief in that regard.
“It really hurts guys like me — knowing that about 50 percent of those men died (in Vietnam). For Voepel to make these claims … it’s sickening.”
Wilske — who says he entered the Assembly race at the behest of a Republican “political office” he wouldn’t name — reports he was upset to learn Voepel had “very glibly” claimed to have PTSD and “didn’t know it.”
“That self-diagnosis is dishonorable and really shows a disservice to a lot of folks I know that did get hurt,” he said.
Monday morning, Voepel spokesman Herron said that if something new emerged from the press conference that needed to be addressed, “we will consider that. But it’s my sense they are only going to reiterate the charges they’ve already put forth.”
Sunday on San Diego Rostra, a conservative blog, Brian Brady shared word of the Hoey news conference.
“I asked Mason Herron about Mr. Hoey’s accusations six days ago,” Brady wrote Sunday. “Mr Herron offered to let me see Assemblyman Voepel’s military separation paperwork but has ignored my follow-up questions and request for a meeting.”
In a phone interview Monday, Brady said that he had asked Herron directly in March whether Voepel had been combat-wounded — and that Herron said yes.
“I do not believe he knew what I was asking,” said Brady, a local Tea Party group founder. (Last week Herron denied to him that Voepel had a Purple Heart, Brady said.)
Wilske has promised to share email “testimonials” from “very credible” people who witnessed Voepel, in public, claiming to be a Purple Heart recipient.
Online comments seemed to take Hoey’s side, with “Graybeard” posting: “To call California Assemblyman Randy Voepel a liar and an organic byproduct of the digestive process would [be] an insult to liars and outhouses everywhere.”
Hoey also said Herron claimed a Purple Heart on behalf of his boss.
“Herron recently stated, on March 12, 2018 at the 76th Assembly caucus meeting at the Veterans Association of North County Resource Center, Oceanside, CA, that Voepel did have a Purple Heart,” Hoey wrote.
But Herron notes that the quote is attributed on another post (by Wilske campaign spokesman Dave Miller) to a different meeting — in Alpine.
“There is no record of a “Regional GOP Caucus Meeting’ in Alpine,” said Herron, who told Times of San Diego he never made the Purple Heart remark.
But Hoey, a New York resident who says he became a professional certified investigator (via ASIS International) after his 2011 Navy retirement, contends he possesses written testimonials of people “who were at political events where [Voepel] actually said these things. … Larry Wilske is attempting to get a copy of a known video with audio where this all goes down … about [Voepel] being wounded in action.”
Hoey also said the discharge document being circulated by Voepel’s chief aide has raised more questions than answers.
“It is very rare that a Navy ship receives a combat action ribbon,” said Hoey, who was accompanied by Wilske at the press conference. “It’s even more rare when everyone on board actually receives it.”
Also challenging Voepel in the sprawling — and heavily Republican — East County district is Democrat James Elia, an accountant who seeks a state bank whose revenues would fund universal health care.
Elia, who didn’t serve in the military, told Times of San Diego: “I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the military and those who have served, including both Mr. Wilske and Mr. Voepel. The whole situation seems unfortunate. I hope Randy is given an opportunity to defend himself.
“I am far more concerned about ensuring California’s 71st constituents have adequate healthcare, good paying jobs, and can afford their rent and mortgages than I am about any particular candidates’ backgrounds.”
Wilske ran for Congress in 2014, losing to incumbent Democrat Susan Davis by 14 percentage points.
This cycle, the 57-year-old Descanso resident says he’s spent about $3,000. But Wilske hopes his first big fund-raiser Friday morning will help him achieve a goal this month of raising $30,000.
A salesman who captains a barge company, Wilske is on the water “usually every day.” He grew up in San Diego, attending University of San Diego High School, Kearny High, Lincoln High and finishing up at Cathedral Catholic High School.
Hoey insists that he wasn’t recruited by the Wilske campaign, saying: “They did not contact me. I contacted [Wilske strategist] David Miller a few days after reading [his] article. … after I conducted some research myself.”
He says he paid his own way to San Diego — returning here again after living in Chula Vista and El Cajon from 1986 to 1989. “The cost of not exposing valor thieves like Randy Voepel is too high,” he said. “That’s why we do this for free.”
Hoey also suggests Voepel is guilty of more than military résumé padding.
“Stolen valor is the tip of the iceberg,” said the 55-year-old veteran. “If I took this further, I’d uncover more issues with Randy Voepel. … In 100 percent of [stolen valor] cases, there’s an element of financial fraud. And in all cases, there are other infractions and crimes.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Hoey as Hoe.