William Devereaux is no war hero.
For years, the former director of veterans programs for New Jersey lied to fellow veterans, to his friends, to his employer, and even to his wife about his tour of duty in Vietnam, he said in an interview.
He has claimed, for example, that he was a paratrooper and an artilleryman in Vietnam, when in fact he was a payroll-distribution specialist. He also took credit for numerous medals, including a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and a Soldier's Medal, none of which he earned.
Authorities allege Devereaux, 63, of Laurel Springs, also faked his war record to receive $34,000 in disability benefits he was not entitled to and to avoid paying $40,000 in property taxes; he was arrested and charged on Nov. 24.
Devereaux acknowledges he did not pay the property taxes but denies fudging his record to receive disability compensation.
"I am absolutely remorseful and sorry for ever diminishing the absolute honor and tradition of those great men and women who got those awards," Devereaux said. "If I could take it back, I would do anything."
For all the controversy, he has also helped many veterans across the state. Devereaux started working in veterans services in 2001 after retiring from a career in sales, he said. In his various roles, first working for Camden County and then for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, he was responsible for helping veterans by representing them at benefit claims hearings and working on issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder and veterans' mental health.
Devereaux said he had started lying about his Vietnam experience near the end of his time working for Camden County. When the veterans he was working with responded well, he said, he kept it up.
"I wanted to be a hero to these guys," Devereaux said. "I wanted to be bigger in life so they would feel comfortable about pouring out their own hearts and souls."
Devereaux maintained that his deceptions allowed him to help more veterans by encouraging them to open up to him.
At some point, he told his wife he had discovered that he had received those medals only in researching his records.
A state news release about Devereaux's appointment in 2004 states he served a full tour of duty in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. In reality, he served for just over four months, according to prosecutors. The release also described a long list of medals and citations, which were made up.
Gary Englert, Devereaux's former supervisor in the state job, for which Devereaux said he submitted his resignation letter on Monday, described him as "knowledgeable" and "competent" on the job and a staunch advocate for veterans.
Others also attest to Devereaux's capabilities and dedication.
William Dennis Brown Jr., who cofounded a student group for veterans at Rutgers University-Camden, said Devereaux had gone out of his way to help student veterans on campus.
When Bryan Adams, a sophomore at the university who served as a sniper in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart, needed help navigating the bureaucracy to receive his disability compensation, Brown pointed him to Devereaux.
"I let him know, and it was literally taken care of within the hour," Adams said. "In all honesty, without him I probably wouldn't have gotten the paperwork pushed through."
Brown said he felt surprised and conflicted about Devereaux after learning about his arrest.
"To me, it's like lying to your family," Brown said. "We're a family, and I'm confused. Why would he do that? I know he did all these good things helping young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and I'm so torn. I can't crucify him, because I know he's done all these good things."
Word of Devereaux's case has spread quickly, on e-mail list services for veterans groups, at gathering halls for veterans, and among friends.
Ron Dash of Willingboro, a friend of Devereaux's, believes his motives were good. "If he's had to lie to take care of veterans, I say it's OK. He didn't do it for his own selfish reasons."
But for some, no amount of good work can make up for Devereaux's fabrications.
"It's a total disgrace, let's put it that way," said Dennis Beauregard of Middletown, Monmouth County, who is president of a chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. "Why be something you're not?"
Assemblyman Jack Conners (D., Burlington), who served in the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard, said he had met Devereaux but didn't know him well. He said he was disappointed and shocked.
"The insult, if this is true, is for someone to take advantage of the situation to get something they are not entitled to," Conners said. "That is just dead wrong."
Devereaux joins a long list of public figures who have exaggerated or fabricated their military records.
This year, former Atlantic City Mayor Robert Levy was sentenced to three years' probation for embellishing his service in Vietnam. He claimed he was abandoned in the jungle for weeks and made numerous parachute jumps, and he received about $25,000 in benefits he was not entitled to.
Levy served two one-year tours in Vietnam and received two Bronze Stars but was exposed by the Press of Atlantic City after he falsely claimed, during his mayoral campaign, to have served as a Green Beret. He also claimed to have received other medals that he did not earn.
B.G. "Jug" Burkett, who wrote a book,
Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History,
said military fraud was "extremely massive and extremely easy to pull off."
He said Devereaux's story epitomized how easy it is for military fakers to pull off their deceptions.
For most, the level of deceit evolves, beginning with slight exaggerations that get blown up over time, Burkett said. Many elevate their rank over time or add to the number of medals they claim to have received. Often, the perpetrators have low self-esteem and enjoy the attention they receive in claiming to be war heroes, he said.
True war heroes typically don't want to talk about their experiences, Burkett said, because they feel so disheartened and guilty that they couldn't or didn't do more to save their buddies.
If convicted on all counts, Devereaux faces up to five years in prison.
But the harshest punishment might be the one already being meted out by his fellow veterans.
Devereaux is desperate to win back their good graces. He urged a reporter to call three friends, all veterans, who he said could speak to his true character.
Two declined to comment. The third did not call back.