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Discovery Channel reality show star trades fire over combat experience

Apr. 29, 2014 - 12:34PM   |  
Discovery Channel
Former Marine and Special Forces soldier Joe Teti filming Dual Survival in Sri Lanka. Teti is returning for his second season on the show amid charges of stolen valor over his combat record. (Discovery Channel)
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Mykel Hawke, a recently retired Special Forces captain, and Ruth, his TV journalist wife, head to the backcountry in Discovery Channel's reality survival series 'Man, Woman, Wild.' (Discovery Channel)

What happened to the other guys?

You may remember the original “Dual Survival” duo, and Joe Teti wasn’t one of them. The show garnered an early following with former Army military policeman David Canterbury alongside off-the-grid guru — and always barefoot — Cody Lundin.
But before last year’s third season kicked off, producers fired Canterbury amid allegations that he had claimed sniper and airborne qualifications he did not earn. “Did I embellish some of the things on my résumé? I did,” Canterbury says on his YouTube channel, in a video apologizing to friends and fans.
Lundin appeared in the most recent season premiere, but his episodes are numbered — he was fired midway through filming the season.
“I was fired due to differences over safety and health concerns. I filmed only four shows,” Lundin says on Facebook. He says he was replaced by Matt Graham from “Dude, You’re Screwed,” yet another survival-themed Discovery show.
Lundin doesn’t appreciate the way Discovery is framing a dramatic confrontation between the co-stars that takes place atop a glacier.
“While I have not yet felt the need to address our differences in a much larger public forum, I won’t hesitate to do so if that is what is required to protect my integrity and my career,” he said.
“As Discovery moves forward with launching the new season of ‘Dual Survival,’ I hope the network will choose a different tactic for the presentation and marketing of the show that is not at my expense.”

Joe Teti says he had two goals when he decided to become a reality TV star.

“One, I wanted to be a good role model for kids. My second goal was to represent the special operations community as a whole in a good light,” Teti, co-star of Discovery Channel’s “Dual Survival,” tells Military Times. “I wanted to portray to the public what an average special operations guy is.”

The hit reality show returned for its fourth season April 23. The idea is simple: Team a former military man with a hippie survivalist and see how they cope with extreme environments. It’s as much about the friction of the odd-couple pairing as surviving the situation.

But with déjà vu-like accusations of an inflated military résumé, a mysterious midseason firing of Teti’s co-star, a fatal helicopter crash and a raging online feud, much of the drama is playing out behind the scenes — and on social media.

In the eye of the storm is Teti, the show’s military expert now filming his second season. And in a bizarre case of reality TV gone wild, among those leveling charges is Teti’s former Army Special Forces teammate and friend — himself a survival show star.

Some of the questions getting stirred up in the fray:

What credentials landed him the show?

According to his biography, posted on both the Discovery Channel’s site and his personal website, Teti says he served in both the Marine Corps’ elite Force Recon — during the 1980s, he tells OFFduty —and Army Special Forces — on and off during the ’90s through 2001. His bio says he’s a “former operator in a highly classified government counter-terrorist unit.” He claims he is a “combat veteran of both [Operation Iraqi Freedom] and [Operation Enduring Freedom]in Afghanistan.”

Teti says he never claimed to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan while in uniform.

“Never have I said that I served in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he tells Military Times. “I want to clear the record right now. I was in a government counterterrorism unit doing direct action missions right alongside Tier 1 assets.”

He says he worked as a contractor in Iraq three times and Afghanistan five times, with each tour between three and five months long. But he says the unit he worked for is so classified that he can’t provide rough dates or even what years he spent downrange.

Even mentioning which government agency he worked for as a contractor is off limits.

“Don’t even guess about it because that will get you in big trouble. Don’t even take liberties at guessing because you’re actually crossing a legal line right there. ... I am not at liberty to discuss — ethically, legally, morally — who I worked for.”

Teti says he left the Marine Corps as a corporal and was honorably discharged from the Army National Guard as a staff sergeant.

In a statement, a senior Discovery executive says Teti brings valuable skills to the show.

“There is no single criterion we use in selecting characters for our survival shows. Each survivalist brings an expertise to this series acquired from various personal and other experiences that help demonstrate a wide range of survival skill sets in action. Joe provided us with documentation that supports his bona fides in the survival world,” said Paul Schur, Discovery vice president for communications.

He looks legit. What's the big deal?

The Internet’s self-appointed guardians of military correctness take exception to Teti’s “combat veteran” claim. Over the course of a decade of war, they’ve seen skyrocketing numbers of people inflating — at best — their military histories, and several known cases have played out on reality shows. Contestants on “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” have made headlines, and Military Times broke the story of a Marine who faked his combat résumé as a contestant on “The Next Food Network Star.”

Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Jonn Lilyea runs the popular military blog This Ain’t Hell. He writes that while Teti’s military records largely check out — he was in the Marine Corps and Army Special Forces — “he could hardly be a ‘combat veteran of OIF and OEF’ as he claims in his bio in the way that most of us understand the term ‘veteran.’ ”

Mary Schantag, who heads both the POW Network and, has investigated some 5,000 contested claims of combat experience and valor medals. She contends that a contractor simply cannot earn the same status that a military member can.

“I don’t care if you’re a veteran of however many contracting scenarios,” she said. “It does not make you a combat veteran.”

Teti says many of the claims on the blogs are false and believes that at least one, Military Phonies, could be a “fake page” propagated by another reality star formerly featured on Discovery. (Marine veteran Scott Hughes, moderator of Military Phonies, assures Military Times he has been investigating valor claims for three years.)

What's fueling this public feud?

Teti’s former Special Forces commander, retired Capt. Mykel Hawke, who spent 25 years in the Army — split among active-duty, National Guard and Reserve units — before retiring in 2011, doesn’t dispute Teti’s military service record.

If Hawke’s name sounds familiar, it’s because these days he stars in Travel Channel’s “Lost Survivors” along with his wife, Ruth. The pair previously starred in Discovery’s “Man, Woman, Wild.”

Before the dustup, both Teti and Hawke say they were good friends. But their beef — heating up on Facebook over the past several months — goes much deeper than the combat claim.

Hawke was helping Teti get into show business,and the pair were working on a movie project together until they split over a development disagreement in 2011, Hawke says. Their feud took on a higher public profile after a deadly helicopter crash last year.

Three people aboard the chopper were killed Feb. 10, 2013, in Southern California as filming began for the pilot of another Discovery Channel military-themed reality show that Teti was helping produce.

Among those killed was Michael Donatelli, a Special Forces veteran and Hawke and Teti’s mutual friend.

Hawke says the show was going to be called “Lone Operator” — the same name as Teti’s personal consulting businesses — and feature Teti as the star. The project was canceled after the accident, and Teti instead was enlisted into another season of “Dual Survival.”

Now Hawke says Teti has been trying to woo away endorsement deals he has with at least four companies.

Teti will tell you he believes Hawke is possessed by demons.

With several lawsuits pending on the helicopter crash, Discovery Channel officials declined to comment. Teti denies all claims made by Hawke.

Have other vets who knew him weighed in?

Teti provided three personal letters of reference to Military Times. An Army colonel commended his work as an instructor at the United Arab Emirates’ Special Operations School in 2009, and an Army captain praised Teti’s work as a marksmanship instructor in 2001.

But troops who served with Teti aren’t impressed with his combat claim, especially in light of the fact that he left the military right after 9/11.

“If he’s claiming to be a combat veteran because he’s a ‘veteran’ of ‘combat’ as a contractor, then that is unconscionable,” says a current field-grade officer who served with Teti. “We had two SF operators badly wounded on that [post-9/11] deployment, and they are the real ‘combat veterans’ in my book.”

OK - but is it good TV?

In the “Dual Survival” Season 4 premiere, Teti and co-star Cody Lundin find themselves chest-deep in a crocodile-infested Sri Lankan mangrove swamp with a knife and a spare bandana.

Teti lays the military vernacular on thick. A plastic tub isn’t cracked — it’s “compromised.” A crab trap crafted from sticks and vines is a “fire-and-forget weapon.” He must do “force protection” each night before bedding down.

He freaks out just a little facing down a cobra, and he gets stuck in a hole, requiring rescue by his barefoot counterpart.

But you leave with the impression that he respects his survival “brother.” To the extent you’re able to suspend your disbelief, you’re impressed that he caught a huge “mud crab” in that trap — and got away from the elephants and the leopard that was never seen, only heard.

When previews for “Naked and Afraid” break up the drama, you realize “Dual Survival” is a prize specimen of reality TV — and Teti is a big part of why it works.

OFFduty editor Amanda Miller contributed to this report.

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