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Military records don't support claims made by veteran who dazzled Donald Trump

March 31, 2016

Editor's note: This story was initially published Thursday at 8:40 p.m. EST. It has been updated to reflect Watkins' response on social media.

Official military records contradict several claims made by an Air Force veteran whose story of surviving the 9/11 terror attacks and battling severe combat injuries gained her access to prestigious events and captivated  celebrities, most recently Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump.

Alicia Watkins, who retired from the Air Force in 2008 for undisclosed medical reasons, has since appeared on multiple mainstream news and TV programs, including "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and the TLC reality series "Say Yes to the Dress," to discuss her struggles after sustaining a career-ending back injury from an improvised explosive attack in Afghanistan. 

However, there is nothing in the list of awards and decorations contained in Watkins' military personnel file indicating she was ever involved in an enemy attack. A spokesman for the Air Force Personnel Center in San Antonio, Texas, Mike Dickerson, provided Air Force Times with Watkins' decorations, awards and deployments, as noted on her DD-214 discharge form.

Numerous attempts to speak with Watkins have been unsuccessful. On Friday, after this story was initially published, Watkins reacted on her Facebook page but did not address the discrepancies between her claims and what's included in her official records. Those remarks were subsequently removed from Facebook.

 

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Watkins responded to Air Force Times' reporting via her Facebook page, but later deleted her comments.
Photo Credit: Screen grab from Facebook

 

 

She met Trump at a campaign event March 21 in Washington, D.C., where the business mogul is building a new hotel. As TV cameras captured the moment, the two engaged in an impromptu job interview after Watkins first praised Trump's military policies and then asked him whether the new hotel would hire any military veterans.

The exchange, widely circulated by the mainstream media, soon raised questions among several other veterans dubious of Watkins' background.

 

 

Notably, Steven Mayne, an internet sleuth who also served in the Air Force, discovered that in 2010 Watkins was interviewed on camera and in uniform by a Los Angeles blogger during a women's conference in California. The video, which was posted to YouTube and later hidden, appeared to show Watkins wearing a Purple Heart ribbon, which is reserved for military personnel who are wounded by enemy action. 

But the list of decorations and awards recorded on Watkins' DD-214 form does not include a Purple Heart, according to Dickerson.

Mayne provided Air Force Times with a screen grab of the video. It's unclear why it was removed from YouTube. The blogger who posted it, Stevie Wilson, did not respond to multiple inquiries.

 

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A screenshot from a video, now taken offline, that appears to show Watkins wearing a Purple Heart ribbon.
Photo Credit: Screenshot from YouTube video

Anthony Anderson, an Army veteran who runs Guardian of Valor, a website dedicated to exposing cases of stolen valor, told Air Force Times that Watkins contacted him after questions were raised about her service following the Trump event. She had sought Anderson's help in clearing her name, he said.

Watkins sent Anderson what appears to be an official Air Force memo, dated Dec. 11, 2014, that purports to certify her enrollment in the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program dating back to 2008. The memo also states that Watkins has injuries resulting from combat, "therefore she is officially designated as a combat-related injured airman in our program." The memo's author is redacted. Anderson shared the memo with Air Force Times.

After Anderson asked Watkins to provide him with proof she received the Purple Heart, Watkins cut off all communication with him, Anderson said.

Air Force Times provided Dickerson with a copy of Watkins' wounded warrior memo. Dickerson said the Air Force could neither confirm nor deny its authenticity, adding that discussing Watkins' medical history would be an invasion of her privacy.

Similarly, Dickerson said the Air Force could not release Watkins' entire DD-214 form, citing similar concerns. However, he said her official records indicate various awards and decorations acknowledging her educational accomplishments and overall good conduct while in the military. Watkins' records list her as receiving eight awards total: the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, the Air Force Organizational Award, the Air Force Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Air Force Longevity Service Award, the Air Force Noncommissioned Officer Professional Military Education Graduate Ribbon and the Air Force Training Ribbon.

She received several of these awards multiple times, which the service designates with an oak leaf device that personnel attach to their ribbons in lieu of wearing the same awards multiple times.

During her two appearances on "Oprah," once in 2010 and again in 2015, and more recently on "Say Yes to the Dress," Watkins discussed her military history and subsequent experience as a homeless veteran. She has blamed her plight on financial fallout stemming from various combat-connected disabilities, including traumatic brain injury, a spinal cord injury and post traumatic stress.

 

In 2014, Watkins appeared in a news segment aired by WJLA-TV, Washington's ABC affiliate, touting the therapeutic benefits of riding horses. She repeated the story about having suffered physical and emotional injuries due to combat, telling the WJLA reporter that she served in Afghanistan and Iraq. "I experienced IEDs, suicide bombers," Watkins said in that report. 

Watkins deployed to Qatar in 2003 and to Afghanistan in 2006, Dickerson said. There is no record of her deploying to Iraq in the information the Air Force provided.

Watkins joined the Air Force in 1998 and retired as a staff sergeant after nine years and six months of service, Dickerson said. She was in the information management career field, working as a network engineer. 

Watkins served at the Pentagon from October 2000 to July 2004, time that included her deployment to Qatar, Dickerson said. She also served at Los Angeles Air Force Base from July 2004 to her retirement in May 2008, time that included her deployment to Afghanistan.

Last fall, Watkins appeared at Spelman College in Georgia as part of a Veterans Day event. The webpage for that event says Watkins is a "certified docent for the 9/11 Memorial Tribute Center in New York."

Kristine Pottinger, a spokeswoman for the 9/11 Tribute Center told Air Force Times that Watkins registered to be a docent there and attended one training session. However, "we were unable to verify her connection to 9/11," Pottinger said. "She is not active in the program."

Watkins appears to have told conflicting stories about her location on 9/11, and its effect on her military service. In an official Air Force news release from 2007, Watkins was described as an "impromptu speaker" at a homecoming celebration for airmen who had just returned from Afghanistan. According to that document, Watkins said she was inspired to join the Air Force because she was in New York City on 9/11, and her friend was killed in the attacks. But Watkins' official military records indicate she had already been in the service for nearly three years when the terror attack occurred.

After the Trump rally, the Washington Post asked Watkins about this discrepancy. She denied saying was in New York on 9/11 and said the Air Force's news release misrepresented her remarks, adding that she did not try to get the mistakes corrected "because she has 'no faith in the media to fix the mistakes.' "

In a 2014 interview on Fox News, Watkins said she had worked at the Pentagon for six years before 9/11. But Air Force records indicate that assignment began less than one year before the attacks. One of the show's hosts asked her about being in the Pentagon during that event.

"You got hurt?" he asked.

Watkins replied "Yes." 

All military personnel in the Pentagon who were injured on 9/11 were eligible to receive the Purple Heart.

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