The Talented Mr. Strandlof: Charismatic Gay Vet and Activist Unmasked as Fraud
Rick Duncan may have seemed too good to be true. He was well-informed and well-spoken, but he also personified the sacrifices made by veterans in the scars he bore. Indeed, Duncan fit in as easily as a veteran of the culture war against openly gay Americans as he did as a former servicemember who was wounded in Iraq, claiming to have graduated from the military academy in Annapolis.
Duncan was helping people deal with bureaucracy, having contributed to the creation of The Colorado Veterans Alliance. He was seen standing up with Colorado politicians as an American hero.
What the telegenic Strandlof was, however, was an ex-convict wanted on outstanding charges, and a fabulist with a talent for showing people what they wanted to see. Indeed, Duncan’s extensive knowledge of matters relevant to veterans seems to have come from the Internet--and from talking, and listening, to veterans.
The New York Times reported on the story in a June 7 article, revealing Duncan’s actual name to be Richard G. Strandlof.
The article described Strandlof as a "drifter" and reported that he had suffered mental illness, claiming to live with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The question now is whether of the good that Strandlof did as Rick Duncan will remain. Already, the Colorado Veterans Alliance has fallen by the wayside, the article reported.
The article quoted political candidate and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, whose run for Congress ultimately ended in defeat, and whose campaign included ads featuring Strandlof.
"What’s so heartbreaking is he was doing some good things."
Added Bidlack, "I just hope he’s not undermined the [pro-veterans] agenda."
Strandlof, who is being detained in a Colorado Springs jail, said that he felt a "camaraderie" with veterans he spoke with, the article reported.
"I would ask them, ’What is your story? How do you feel?’
As he began to assimilate what he heard from veterans, a sort of alter-ego--Rick Duncan--developed. Strandlof embraced the new persona, complete with fictitious biography, including a brain injury inflicted, he claimed, by an IED.
"I would feel a moment of camaraderie that I myself have never experienced in my life," Strandlof said of sharing his imaginary life story with actual veterans.
They, in turn, seemed to have developed an affinity for him, not probing for details about his military service or questioning dubious parts of his story.
The article quoted veteran Joe Barrera, who served in Vietnam, as saying, "We attributed that to his wounds and to his P.T.S.D.[Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], and so were all easy on him."
The Denver Post carried a detailed story on June 7 that quoted Strandlof as saying, "I admit that not everything I said was as factual as I wish it had been," but going on to add, "When I talked with people about my passion about vets’ issues, I believed that was the truth."
The Denver Post story also sketched in Strandlof’s origins, previous misdeeds, and one purported relationship involving a young man Strandlof claimed had been his boyfriend.
Whether or not Strandlof came to believe the stories he told of military life and life after service in Iraq, one question nags: how is it that someone with such an elaborate, but false, story should be so active on behalf of military veterans? Where is the rest of American society?
The Denver Post related how Strandlof had proven himself capable of organizational work before, acting as his own client in lawsuits against jails where he’d been held before his stint as Rick Duncan.
The article quoted Robert Moran, an advocate for the homeless who runs The Street Church in Colorado Springs. The article noted that Moran and Strandlof shared some of the same concerns, but that Strandlof, rather than lobbying officials as Moran does, had turned to litigation in seeking to end the city’s practice of striking makeshift abodes set up by the homeless.
Said Moran, himself an Army vet, "He definitely showed a real passion for people on the streets, veterans and nonveterans."
Moran, too, cited Strandlof’s fluency with veteran’s affairs, saying, "People would call him and ask about where and how to get help for mental issues, and he had the answers."
Added Mora, "If he did do something illegal, it may be that it wasn’t intentional--it may be that he just isn’t healthy."
Even so, "What do you do with a Rick Duncan? Do you pray for him and hope he gets some help?
"In the short time he spent advocating for the homeless, he did some good, but the jury is still out for the long term impact, right?"
The article quoted Army Spec. Garett Reppenhagen, who explained his own reaction to the revelation, saying, "It seems like his heart was in the right place.
"He was a really hard worker. He did a lot of good by raising a lot of awareness, but then you find out that he’s a fraud."
Added Reppenhagen, "I can’t say I hate Rick Duncan for what he did.
"But I certainly never want to talk to him again."
Strandlof himself seems to share in just such ambiguity: asked to say definitively if he were Rick Duncan or Richard Strandlof, the Post article reported, he answered, "Both."