Note: JQP was assisted in researching this story by the operators of the “Air Force amn/nco/snco” Facebook page.
Here at JQP, we look with a jaundiced eye upon false pretenses, and we focus mainly on the United States Air Force and its veterans. So we couldn’t help but notice when these subjects were co-featured — somewhat bizarrely — during a recent Donald Trump media event.
Alicia Watkins, a former Air Force Staff Sergeant, held herself out as a member of the media and posed a veteran-related employment question to Mr. Trump during an event at his hotel project in Washington. Trump summarily brought her to the podium, asked her a few vague questions, and decisively settled on giving her a job in his organization.
Ever thus to those who tickle the “gut instinct” of the Donald:
It didn’t take long for the actual members of the media, who evidently felt like unwitting propagandists, to start gnawing at the real meaning of Watkins’ presence at the event.
CNN determined Watkins was not a journalist, but had been granted a press credential by the Trump campaign to ask the candidate a question. Campaign representatives claimed Watkins was a reporter for “Troops Media,” which doesn’t exist.
When CNN got Watkins on the phone, she promised an email explaining why “Troop Media” doesn’t appear in a web search … while hurriedly developing an excuse to break off the call. The email never arrived. Air Force Times later contacted companies using the name “Troop Media,” who promptly reported that Watkins doesn’t work for them.
As a preview of where this is all going, take a look at the following clip and listen closely to Watkins’ responses to media inquiries. This is what transpired when newly suspicious reporters caught up with her after the event.
There are a couple of subtle inconsistencies completely internal to this four-minute clip. Nothing earth-shattering, but just enough to invite more curiosity. For example, Watkins flails for a straight answer to when she left the military, implying at one point that she’s still on “medical hold.” But later she clearly states she is retired, meaning there is a date certain in her record — and presumably in her mind — when her military service ended.
But beyond the specific oddities, there’s an uneasy vagary about the way Watkins describes her service. A lack of detail uncharacteristic of the way most veterans relate their experiences to others.
This got us wondering, so we looked at her story more closely. And as we looked, we saw more vagary and more contradiction, and it got us wondering even more. And so we now raise a number of questions. Not to outright label Watkins a liar or Charlatan, but to highlight ambiguities she should work to resolve if she’s to continue advocating for the veteran cause and speaking on behalf of its constituents.
We won’t cover every inconsistency here, and the intent is not to recount every chapter of Watkins’ unfolding media legacy. The point here is to highlight select inconsistencies and contradictions central to her self-proclaimed plight as a wounded warrior and post-9/11 veteran struggling to recover. For it’s that platform upon which Watkins has perched herself in creating a popular persona in which many Americans trust, and upon which many have relied in forming sympathetic and charitable views about her specifically and veterans generally.
Take a look at this clip from 2014, starting around 1:15 and continuing until Monty Roberts starts talking. (Unless you’re into horses … in that case feel free to watch the whole thing).
Note Watkins says she was hurt during the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. But in a later interview, she struggles to answer basic questions about where she was within the Pentagon when the attack occurred. In yet another media event, she remarks about how fortunate she was to be somewhere other than her normal location when the attack occurred.
Survivors of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon who were traumatized by the event can normally state within a meter or two exactly where they were when the attack transpired, who they were with, and what they were doing. None of this is to suggest she wasn’t there, and indeed her Air Force service record bears an assignment to the Pentagon … but the claim of being wounded in the attack begs for more explanation.
Watkins also says she was at the Pentagon for “six years” before the 9/11 attacks, but her record reflects military service from 1998-2008, according to sources familiar with information released by the Air Force Personnel Center. This is probably just a misspeak, though Watkins has said it elsewhere as well, including during a recent episode of “Say Yes to the Dress,” which showcased her veteran background.
She also refers to having been on “medical hold” for five years. Risking pedantry, if indeed it were “medical hold,” Watkins would not have been retired until the hold was released, and it would never have run that long — even in the pathetic and broken bureaucracy that is the post-9/11 DoD-VA inept-i-plex.
But even if Watkins means to say it took that long for the VA to start acting on her medical claims, there’s a problem. She says in the 2014 video that she spent five years on medical hold (past tense), but remarks in the 2016 C-SPAN video featured above that she’s “been on” medical hold for five years (as if it continues into the present). But yet, in a 2010 appearance on Oprah, Watkins speaks of receiving retired pay after having served just 10 years, which means she was medically retired and had some sort of disability rating by that time.
There are plausible explanations for each of these oddities, but they require a bit of stretching. That’s really the overall theme with Watkins’ backstory.
The Oprah episode showcased Watkins’ plight as a homeless veteran who had “written herself off” after the trauma of military service. But it’s not clear why Watkins needed to be homeless. By her own account, she was drawing retired pay (though she would later say in a CNN interview that she wasn’t getting paid during this time) and living in a rented car, which implies she had a line of credit and paid an insurance bill.
Oprah doesn’t ask if she lived in the car for the entire year Watkins claims to have been on the streets of Los Angeles, and Watkins doesn’t offer any detail. We don’t know where she kept her belongings before moving into the car, how she charged her electronic devices to keep a video diary, or how she managed to maintain the immaculate appearance we might expect of a professional model while sleeping in a sedan for such an extended period of time.
Oprah also doesn’t ask about the photo below, dated November 13, 2009 — squarely during the time Watkins says she was homeless — featuring an exuberant and combat uniformed SSgt. Watkins (who would have been retired at this point) representing herself as recently returning from a deployment. This earns her Veterans Day love from model and talent agent Janice Dickinson. Watkins had actually returned from deployment 30 months before the photo was taken.
The thing is, none of this is necessarily inconsistent with the behavior of a traumatized veteran. It wouldn’t be unusual for a traumatized veteran to self-impose homelessness and forsake the help of family, or to concoct an elaborate physical cantonment to mirror an even more confining mental prison. Veterans who have been to hell and back not uncommonly exhibit this kind of self-defeating conduct, and they often manage to sprinkle in just enough “normal” behavior to give lie to their dysfunction.
The question is whether Watkins went to hell and back, thereby onboarding the kind of trauma that would drive her to such desperation, which is at the core of her recovery story and growing notoriety. Here, the facts are murky.
Watkins told reporters in 2014 she was seriously wounded in an IED attack during a deployment to Afghanistan — an incident that resulted in traumatic brain injury and damage to her spinal cord. Across a range of other media appearances, dating back several years, she’s also made mention of suicide bombers, having been hurt in the Pentagon on 9/11, and is said to have watched colleagues die. She’s also mentioned having been sexually assaulted (later enlarging to the phrase “multiple rapes.”)
The problem is that Watkins’ story has varied over time, and it’s impossible to verify (or disprove) any of it conclusively. We know she deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006 and returned to Los Angeles Air Force Base in 2007. We know photos taken of her in the fall of 2006 and again on Christmas Day of that year show a healthy Watkins. We know she was able to stand on her own feet, walk capably, and deliver remarks to a crowd in April, 2007 after her return home. A contemporary media account (which contains other interesting inaccuracies) showcases her giving an impromptu speech that contained a great message, but did not refer to her deployed experiences … instead reflecting back on 9/11/01.
Watkins wasn’t specific about how she received her injuries when she appeared on Oprah three years later. Only around 2011 did her media appearances begin to specifically mention IED attacks and trips outside the wire on convoy operations. These accounts were vague, but regularly referred to multiple life-or-death experiences in the course of her Afghanistan deployment. This strikes a note of improbability. No one outside of a few select units talks about 2006 Afghanistan in these terms.
IED attacks were comparatively rare in 2006, when troop levels in Afghanistan hovered around 20,000, operations were confined to specific areas, and violence levels were characterized as “low.” Convoys were far less utilized than in the latter years of the conflict, making it improbable — though not impossible — that an Air Force information management specialist stationed at the headquarters in Kabul (and not attached to a fielded unit) would have found herself in an IED attack. For the sake of contrast, there were 800 IED attacks in Afghanistan in 2006 and more than 15,000 in 2010, by which time many more Air Force support personnel were embedding with Army and Marine units in the field. If one instance is improbable, multiple life-and-death instances … exponentially more so.
But if Watkins was indeed part of convoy operations and was wounded in one or more IED attacks, it’s odd that there’s not a single photo of her in body armor or wearing a helmet or riding in a Humvee. There are no photos of her with convoy teammates and no teammate testimonials corroborating her account of being grievously wounded in an attack, narrowly dodging the reaper’s scythe in others. This is strange. Watkins never talks about her teammates in Afghanistan — even if simply to thank those who rendered aid after she was hurt. She never names a colleague or describes a specific instance of trauma involving a brother or sister in arms. She never makes reference to those she fought and bled with in combat, instead consistently referring back to 9/11 and recounting its significance via patriotic platitudes. This is beyond strange. Veterans almost universally refer first and foremost to memories of fallen comrades and fellow survivors when recounting their most poignant combat experiences.
Perhaps most dispositive is that if Watkins had indeed been wounded in combat, she’d have almost certainly received a Purple Heart, and likely other medals along with it. Yet, according to sources familiar with her service file, it contains no record of a Purple Heart being awarded (though the source disclaims that the Air Force not infrequently makes mistakes in this regard). There’s also no media coverage of her being awarded this or any other medal during her homecoming or at any other time. This is strange because combat medals are a rarity for support airmen — one almost always bellowed from the rooftops by Air Force publicists seeking to cement air service relevance in a protracted land war. In the many media appearances Watkins has made, she’s never been introduced as a recipient of the Purple Heart or discussed what decorations she earned. This is an odd omission. One hopes that Watkins’ DD214 reflects a Purple Heart, because she’s been photographed in service dress wearing the medal.
There are other weirdnesses.
Watkins claims she lost her best friend in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, but refers to that best friend not by her first name, but by her rank and last name … and she gets the rank wrong immediately after saying they were “very close.” Army SGT Tamara Thurman was indeed lost that day, but there’s nothing else in the public record suggesting she and Watkins were best friends, and no evidence Watkins started a charity in her name, as she claimed at one point. She refers to her as “Staff Sergeant Thurman.”
In a 2012 “where are they now” follow-up to her Oprah appearance, Watkins discussed having applied to and been accepted at Harvard University. But according a different account, she’s listed as an undergraduate at Harvard Extension School, which offers essentially open enrollment and delivers online and continuing education. This means Watkins wasn’t required to endure the normal undergraduate admission process, submit scores, or attest to her life story to gain admission. High school kids in the Boston area routinely attend the Extension School for advanced college credit.
She talks later about having to leave school because of her medical and mental disabilities, but her Instagram account is littered with photos of a happy and healthy looking Alicia, and she recently starred in an episode of “Say Yes to the Dress” after traveling to San Francisco for Super Bowl 50.
In an interview for Baltimore Magazine in 2015, she said she felt “cast away after 16 years in the military.” We know she only served 10.
In a 2011 interview with CNN, she said
“[w]hat happened with me is that, once I came back to the states, and a wounded warrior, I think I kind of fell through the cracks. And my care was not seen throughout its fruition, and there were things that were happening, like I was not getting paid, and there was no way to stop it. And so that is how I ended up homeless on the streets, because I was active duty at the time, was told that I was — you know, never was going to use my back or walk or anything else again, and I was in this limbo.”
But we know from her own statements that she was getting paid, and there’s no evidence she was ever paralyzed.
She talks about having diseases related to her service at the Pentagon on 9/11, but the illnesses that have been attributed to the destruction of 9/11 apply to Ground Zero in New York City — not Washington — and are almost exclusively applicable to first responders.
She tells reporters her job in the Air Force was “network engineer,” but her service record says she was a 3A0 Information Management Specialist. The former requires a specialized four-year degree and a certification. The latter, a high school diploma and a 37-day tech school.
Finally, when Ms. Watkins was asked a year or so ago about inconsistencies in her stories about military service, she marginalized the questioner and essentially labeled him a “birther.” This is ironic given her nascent affiliation with the original birther himself. But if Watkins is the warrior she claims to be, she won’t dismiss or shy away from questions like these. They’re easily answered with the simplest of facts — facts she should be proud to unabashedly provide.
Summary dismissal of service-related questions by someone who has made military service the centerpiece of an increasingly profitable public persona is a red flag. But in this last clip, you might spot a few more. Have a look.
I won’t comment on the video more than I already have, but will leave you to draw your own conclusions … or form your own questions.
To be sure, there are possible explanations accounting for the remarkable story of Alicia Watkins. One explanation is that everything is totally legitimate, and that she’s done more living — both good and bad — than most of us will ever do. Assigned to the Pentagon for six years as a brand new airman, wounded survivor of the 9/11 attack who lost her best friend and started a charity in her name, multiple deployer with battle scars from IEDs, suicide attacks, and frequent convoy activity outside the wire as an information management specialist, recipient of the Purple Heart for enduring traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, and disease-driven tumors arising from the horrors of terrorism. But also a survivor of multiple rapes, homelessness, VA malfeasance, mental illness, and suicidal ideation … who finally pulled through, swiftly rebounding to a media, modeling, and reality TV career dotted with pageant appearances, media avails, and now, a fortuitous Gump-esque run-in with a Presidential frontrunner … all while she continues to struggle with service-connected medical and mental trauma that prevents her from working and forced her to leave her (online) education behind, despite the fact it’s paid for by the GI Bill and less strenuous than the celebrity jet-setting lifestyle evident from her social media profile.
Another explanation is that some of what Alicia Watkins has told the world is totally fabricated, and that she harbors specific motives for portraying her story as she has — motives that have at times borne out sizable material and intangible rewards, positioning her for a second career as a fashionable veteran mouthpiece with celebrity and political connections.
A third explanation lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps Ms. Watkins story is essentially true but false in detail — embellished or mistaken for reasons as harmless as they are tragic.
Which of these explanations holds the most water could be easily determined, and an inevitable frenzy of probing questions laid preemptively to rest, through a simple rendition of challengeable and falsifiable facts. This must be done by Watkins herself, as she’s the only person with access to those facts.
This would ordinarily be an unfair question to ask of a veteran entitled to the presumption of honestly and honorability. But such presumptions must be rebuttable to sustain their presence in American culture, and Watkins has made her service record relevant and rebuttable by first publicly selling herself as a veteran, second portraying herself as a veteran advocate, and third connecting herself and her service credentials to electoral politics.
If you want John Q’s opinion … here it is.
Alicia Watkins has portrayed herself in the media in a specific and profound way, painting herself as a wounded warrior and struggling vet battling back from the horrors of close combat and serial victimization through toughness and a determined spirit. This portrayal has earned her the cloying adulation of not just The Donald, but Oprah Winfrey, the producers of at least one reality TV show, and countless additional media outlets and personalities. Her pedigree has opened the door to celebrity status, giving Watkins opportunities as a model, pageant participant, and budding TV star. In the wake of the Trump incident, which invites doubts about her authenticity, it’s fair to look anew at that pedigree.
When I look at it, I see an endless string of assertions and inferences that, while strictly plausible, require us to stretch to believe them. Taking any one of them in isolation raises no insuperable doubts. But when we take them all together, this starts to look like what I call a “pizza dough story.” The more you stretch it in different directions, the thinner it gets. At some point, it stretches so far that you can see right through it.
There are questions about Donald Trump’s new veteran darling. Those questions have now been raised. My guess is that at this point, they’ll start to get answered … one way or another.
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