She said she was hurt in Afghanistan. But she wasn't even in the military.
The town of Cass Lake embraced Elizabeth McKenzie last month when she arrived at the high school in her Army uniform for a welcome home ceremony.
Though she isn't a tribal member, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Honor Guard gave her a blanket and an eagle feather to honor her as a woman warrior for her service in Afghanistan. There was a tribal drum ceremony and a reception line. Accepting the town's gratitude, McKenzie talked about the close calls she'd had and a war injury that brought her home. She led the march in the high school gym, carrying the American flag, and the local newspaper documented the hero's return.
But none of it was true. The 20-year-old McKenzie was never injured in combat, had never been to Afghanistan, never been deployed anywhere. In fact, she's never been in the military.
Now the 2009 grad of Cass Lake High School has been cited for impersonating an officer, which in Minnesota includes the military. And the people of Cass Lake are trying to recover from feeling duped by their own good intentions.
"A lot of people feel bad, but in one way they can't blame themselves for having hope in somebody," said Zeb Hemsworth, the police chief of Pike Bay Township, who investigated the case. "Because having hope in somebody is a good thing."
Reached for comment, McKenzie replied through an e-mail on Saturday that she didn't want to discuss the situation.
Her hoax was elaborate, and by most accounts she carried herself like a soldier. Before a departure ceremony last year that was held at the town's American Legion hall, she posed in an Army battle dress uniform and told supporters she would be serving overseas with the Army's 302nd Battalion, 16th Regiment Military Police, an apparently fictional unit. She said she'd done her basic training at Fort Leonard Wood and had 11 weeks of advanced training. She said she'd helped with flooding cleanup in Fargo and after a tornado hit Wadena.
That was the last anyone in Cass Lake heard from McKenzie until last month, when she was treated to a hero's homecoming. A TV news crew recorded the event as she shook hands and accepted hugs while wrapped in the blanket the tribal honor guard bestowed on her.
Wally Humphrey, a member of the Leech Lake band who sometimes counseled McKenzie during her high school years, remembered feeling proud of her accomplishments. He remembered McKenzie's teen years as troubled and unstable, with moves to various foster homes.
"It was good to see someone successful," Humphrey said. "So many kids don't make it these days."
Hemsworth was in the auditorium that day and remembered being impressed with McKenzie's sacrifices. There wasn't a hint of anything being amiss, he said.
But when a college recruiter for Fond du Lac Community College in Cloquet heard about the ceremony, she began to raise questions and told Hemsworth about her suspicions. McKenzie had been a student at the college during the period she claimed to be in Afghanistan. A check showed she had been enrolled in classes and regularly attended. She also had a part-time job in Cloquet, where she lived, with no extended absences.
The police chief checked with the Minnesota and Wisconsin National Guard. McKenzie had never been a soldier, he was told.
During the homecoming ceremony, some veterans had noticed that details of her uniform looked askew, though they'd kept their thoughts to themselves. The chevrons signifying her rank were different on her cap from her blouse, and neither was for the rank she claimed to hold, private first class.
Asked by police for her official military papers, she could not produce them.
Frank Bowstring, a Leech Lake veterans services officer, said that in hindsight more checking should have been done. "But you give the benefit of the doubt for someone who went overseas. You wouldn't question it," he said.
Police say that when she was confronted, McKenzie admitted to them that she had never been in Afghanistan. But she continued to contend that she is in the Army, saying her paperwork was lost during basic training.
"I don't believe any of it, of course," Hemsworth said.
In a telephone interview with Lakeland Public Television, McKenzie said she wanted to honor family members who had served in the military and then said she would be willing to accept help if anyone was willing to provide it. Her mother, who lives in Two Harbors, told the station that McKenzie had struggled with mental health problems for years, which had led to her estrangement from family members.
Although she was provided gifts, it's not clear that McKenzie intended to benefit from the ruse. The idea to have the town honor her came from someone who knew her in high school and was taken in by her story, Bowstring said.
"I think she just wanted some attention," Bowstring said.
The Cass County Attorney's Office is continuing to investigate.
"Just how often do you question whether a soldier is a soldier? I didn't question it," Hemsworth said. "I was proud like everybody else. I got goosebumps, That pride is still there in the community. We're just going to direct that pride to the people who are actually serving.
"There's plenty of soldiers from our area actually serving."
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434
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