WEST ALLIS — Nearly four-million American veterans suffer from a disability connected to their military service. John Hemphill is not one of them, but the FOX6 Investigators discovered the West Allis man has been posing as a disabled Marine for years.
He's known to many as Lieutenant John Hemphill. At least, that's what it says on his bank statement, his electric bill, and his cell phone bill. But he's no lieutenant. In fact, he's not even a Marine.
The FOX6 Investigators recently spotted Hemphill volunteering at a concession stand during a high school football game. He was standing in the background, well behind the counter, munching on popcorn. A tattoo was visible on his left forearm that read: "Marine Corps."
"You a Marine?" Stephen Davis, a FOX6 Investigators producer said, as he stood in line to buy a hot dog.
"Yes sir," Hemphill said.
Davis tried to follow up, asking where Hemphill served. Before he could answer, the unemployed 46-year-old doubled over, covering his mouth. He later said he was choking on a fly. But he never did answer the question.
Hemphill has told others he's a 22-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps who lost his leg in Afghanistan. That's exactly what he told the woman who would become his wife.
"Then he said 'all of a sudden there was a bomb,'" Sheila Hemphill recalled. "His leg, you know, blew off."
Hemphill does have a prosthetic leg. It even has a U.S. Marines T-shirt laminated onto it. His left forearm is tattooed with the words "Marine Corps." His cars have veterans license plates. His mail is often addressed to Lieutenant John Hemphill. And around his neck, you'll almost always find a pair of dog tags.
"It really seemed convincing. Yes it did," his wife said.
So convincing that when Sheila and John Hemphill married in 2013, she got an image of his dog tags tattooed on her right arm.
"It says 'Mrs. Lieutenant Jonathan Hemphill,'" she said.
Sheila's daughter bought into the tale.
"He sold us a sad story," said Regina Davis. "He was in the Iraq war and he was helping a little kid and so they happened to walk across a bomb. And that's what happened to his leg."
Regina and her mother said they believed Hemphill was a genuine wounded warrior until a member of his own family came forward last year.
"She was like, 'I gotta tell you something.' She started crying. She's like, 'John was never, ever in the military,'" Sheila said.
"I mean, it's fraud," Regina said.
The Hemphills are now getting a divorce.
"The whole marriage was based on a fraud," Sheila said.
"We see that over and over and over," said Mary Schantag, one of the founders of The Fake Warrior Project.
Schantag lives in Branson, Missouri, but the project includes a network of volunteers who've exposed military imposters across the country, claiming awards and commendations from Purple Hearts to the Medal of Honor.
"It's an epidemic," she said. "An absolute epidemic!"
After we told her about Hemphill, Schantag requested detailed records of his military service. The Marine Corps could not find him anywhere in their records.
"I don't know how he lost his leg," Schantag said. "But I can guarantee it wasn't in the bombing in Afghanistan and it certainly wasn't in an ambush in Vietnam."
It was an ambush in Vietnam that wounded Schantag's husband.
"I was married to a Marine," she said, her lower lip suddenly quivering. Her eyes welled up. Her speech was now choked. After eight seconds, she managed to speak again.
"It ticks me off when there's a phony Marine. Because I know what he went through. I know how he suffered," Schantag said, a stream of tears plainly visible on her left cheek.
"It is reprehensible," said David Kurtz, state adjutant for the Wisconsin American Legion. "Not only does it demean veterans and demean those who have served the country honorably, but it is an insult to those members of the general public that want to genuinely support veterans."
All of this is especially offensive to Campbellsport, Wisconsin native Josh Wege. He's a real Marine who actually lived the harrowing things John Hemphill only pretends to.
"It's disgusting, honestly," Wege said.
Wege was 19 when he lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan.
"We hit a 200-pound bomb. Ripped both my legs off," he said.
Seven years later, Wege is honoring the vets that came before him in a way he never imagined. He plays for the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team.
"There's a lot of guys paying a heavy price. A lot of families that are still suffering. For someone to come out there and impersonate somebody who has fallen, it's disgusting to me," Wege said.
That's precisely why Hemphill's wife said she asked for a divorce.
"People have died for this country. They have served. He hasn't done anything," Sheila said.
Hemphill is not a disabled Marine, but he is a convicted felon. He robbed a pizza delivery man in 1990. He put his fists through the front windows of a car during an argument in 1994. He stole $8,000 worth of jewelry in 2012. He was charged with other crimes, including passing worthless checks, but they were dismissed.
"He's a disgrace," Sheila said.
The FOX6 Investigators called Hemphill to get his side of the story, but he never called back -- so we went to West Allis and found him in the driver's seat of a car, parked in the alley behind his house.
"Lieutenant John, how are you?" asked FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn.
"Who?" Hemphill replied.
"Lieutenant John," Polcyn repeated.
"No," Hemphill said.
"Yeah, you're John Hemphill, right?" Polcyn asked.
"I'm John Hemphill," he confirmed. "Why?"
Moments later, Polcyn noticed the dog tags hanging around his neck.
"Lieutenant John. It's right there on your dog tags," Polcyn said.
"No it's not," Hemphill retorted.
Just then, he covered up the dog tags with papers that were already in his hands, as Polcyn asked the next question.
"Why would you be telling people that you're a disabled, retired Marine who lost his leg in Afghanistan?" Polcyn asked, as Hemphill closed the window and began to back his car away.
So why would Hemphill lie about being a retired Marine, wounded in action?
Maybe he does it for the accolades.
"People come up, shake his hand. 'Thank you for your service,'" Sheila said.
Maybe it's a way to meet women. The FOX6 Investigators found his profile on a free dating website called Plenty of Fish, even though he's technically still married.
"Every lady that we've talked to since their separation, he told them the same story. 'Oh, I served 22 years' and 'You wanna wear my dog tags?'" Regina Davis said.
Or maybe it's for personal gain, like the 15% discount on his US Cellular bill.
"For military to get a discount on a cell phone, you have to have a military ID!" Schantag said.
Turns out, Hemphill got a military ID when he joined the American Legion.
"Did he have, like, a Legion card?" FOX6's Bryan Polcyn asked.
"Yes, yes. It's like a little card, his name on there, Lt. John Hemphill," Sheila said.
Sheila asked the Legion why they let him become a member. Didn't he have to show proof of his military service?
"They said all they saw was his leg, so they assumed he was a veteran. I said, 'So you didn't ask?' They said 'Well, sometimes it's personal,'" Sheila said.
Kurtz said new members sign an application attesting to their service.
"They can sign a document they know is not true. There is no stopping that," Kurtz said. "It speaks to the need to enforce the law."
In 2015, the state of Wisconsin passed a new law that makes it a Class A misdemeanor to falsely claim military service for any kind of tangible benefit. Hemphill's wife and daughter believe the law ought to be applied to him.
"I believe he deserves jail," Regina Davis said.
"People have served their country," Sheila Hemphill said. "I think John should serve some time."
Mary Schantag said it's time for either state or federal authorities to make an example out of those living with stolen valor.
"There's nothing worse in my book than a phony Marine or a phony POW," she said. "They can all go to hell."
David Kurtz of the Wisconsin American Legion says when a new member joins, the local post is supposed to verify the member's military service by requesting a document known as a DD-214. In John Hemphill's case, that didn't happen.
Since the FOX6 Investigators made the Legion aware of his case, JFK Post 479 has sent Hemphill a certified letter requesting his DD-214. The Legion said he has not responded. JFK Post 479 has therefore begun the process of removing Hemphill from membership.
As for Hemphill's phony military claims, there is no evidence he's getting any military benefits. The Milwaukee VA said they have no record of him getting treatment.
U.S. Cellular said it could not comment on Hemphill's 15% military discount due to privacy concerns.
However, the company did issue the following statement:
"At U.S. Cellular, we thank and appreciate the brave men and women who serve or have served in the military, so we offer active duty, reserve military and veterans a 15 percent discount on their wireless service. This program is designed to lessen one financial commitment for our military customers.
Active duty military customers who wish to have the discount applied are able to call in to our Customer Service line or visit any of our stores. We can validate their status via the Department of Defense website or by military ID. Veterans who wish to have the discount applied are required to visit one of our stores, and we can verify their status with any of the following documents:
- Discharge paperwork from the military at the end of service (DD-214)
- A Veteran’s ID card (VIC Card)
- A retired veteran’s military ID card (DD Form 2)
- A membership card from the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)
- A certificate from a service citation
- A state issued Veteran's ID card"