Lessons learned from the Veterans Day stolen valor debacle at Chili’s


In what can only be described as “that time everyone involved did the wrong thing on Veteran’s Day,” a US Army veteran’s video social media complaint after a dispute broke out at a local Chili’s over the veracity of his military service.

Ernest Walker -who goes by the social media moniker of Ernest Blackbatman- was questioned by a Dallas,TX, Chili’s manager on the authenticity both his military service as well as his service dog.

According to Walker’s post on Facebook, Walker was “approached by an old white guy, maybe in his 70s, with a Trump Shirt” who asked if Walker had been in the 24th Infantry Division, presumably because Walker was wearing the digital ACU uniform with the 25th ID patch on his sleeve- which bears a mild similarity to the 24th ID patch.

Walker then said that the elderly man “said he was in Germany, and that they did not let Blacks serve over there. He left to the back, and came back and rubbed my dog Barack, who is a service dog.”

After eating some of his meal and boxing up the rest to take home, Walker was approached by manager Wesley Patrick who reportedly questioned the veteran about his military service and service dog.

According to Walker, “Wesley Patrick, comes from the same area in the back (as the older man), walked up, and (sic) rudly informs me that a guest said that I was not a real soldier because I had my hat on indoors.” When Walker presented his DD-214, the manager apologized and asked about the service dog.

At this point, Walker began filming the incident, berating the manager in a loud and abrasive manner for questioning the service dog.

“Barack had his Red Service Vest on, and his Certified Service Tags,” Walker wrote. “I was sitting for 35 minutes prior with Barack beforehand. At this point I was grossly offended embarrassed dehumanized and started Recording…Mr. Wesley snatched my food away, made body contact”

Upon leaving the Chili’s, Walker reportedly wasted no time in connecting with the media.

There are several things to take away from this incident, one in which there were clearly no winners.

While Walker is a veteran, the uniform in his initial basic training graduation photo places his initial service somewhere in the early to mid-1980s, likely well beyond the timeframe where wearing full ACUs in 2016 -long after he had left the service- would have been appropriate, even in veteran circles. In addition, the lack of insignia, wearing a cover indoors and sporting colorized patches on the ACUs would come as a red flag to civilians and veterans alike, particularly when the “stolen valor”-outing movement appears to have reached fever pitch.

ernest-walker-basic-training

The elderly “Trump” gentleman -be he well meaning or malicious- should have stayed in his lane. While the military may not have been racially integrated in his time, it certainly was not long after he got out and he would no doubt have known that. During World War II, whites, blacks and even Japanese-Americans were mostly segregated but nonetheless served with equal distinction in their respective roles- the Red Ball Express and Tuskegee Airmen and Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team come to mind as stellar examples where minorities in a segregationist America stood up for their country.

While it is possible the elderly veteran was making an error in unit identification, trying to oust a possible impersonator, suffering from dementia in his old age or just being a mean-spirited septuagenarian, he should have not gotten himself involved in the first place.

In regards to the service dog, Barack’s red vest and “Certified Service Tags” mean very little in an age where people who want to bring their pets everywhere with them (and can shop for such “official” items online) take advantage of vague laws, all the while making life harder for people with legitimate service animals. While it is in fact unlawful to extensively question the legitimacy of a Service Animal, most people with service animals are initially instructed to carry copies of their medical and training paperwork that comes with the great responsibility (and liability) of being a service animal handler. Although not everyone does this, most people who have a legitimate service animal for legitimate reasons do so to avoid liability and incidents such at the one that unfolded.

The manager -who was arguably just doing his job- should not have seized the food. While the food was (presumably) at no cost to Walker and the issuance of said food is a courtesy for veterans by the Chili’s brand (rather than a ‘right’), at this point, even if Walker or his dog were not the real deal, it would have essentially been a victimless crime that wouldn’t have even been worth a police report. He should have just reviewed the credentials, apologized and let Walker be liable for whatever happened for the remainder of his time in Chili’s.

While the press seems comfortable to take a single side to this story, the entire incident is just one big after-action report on what not to do on Veteran’s Day.

Lastly, if there is anything to take away from this incident, it would be the importance of tact and class in veteran culture- while this situation would indeed be vexing for anyone, there was no logical reason for it to escalate the way it did. Walker’s attire was rather over-the-top and in poor taste. He should have quietly presented his credentials. The elder veteran should have “stayed in his lane.” The manager should have better picked his battles. In short, everyone screwed up and -while there is a lesson to be learned- probably learned nothing from it.

As veterans, we are leaders and role models in our communities. Trained at one time to be graceful and cool-headed in hostile situations, many of us too often become wrapped up in a sense of “veteran entitlement” that would suggest we no longer have to “walk the walk” to match the talking we do. Nothing could be further from the truth- if anything, the more one advertises their service to others, the more they should be expected to uphold a distinguished character befitting of the ambassadorship they so willingly take on.

Marine legend General James N. Mattis once said to “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” While the current culture of “Dysfunctional Veteran” t-shirts and veteran entitlement seem to capitalize on the latter part of that statement, incidents such as the showdown at Chili’s seem to suggest a return to the former half of the statement may be well in order.

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