What Went Wrong With “The War Within”

A failure to verify facts.

In the article “The War Within,” in Philadelphia magazine’s April 2013 issue, I thought I was writing about a man coping with his demons. Turns out, I was—only they were a completely different set than I imagined.

And so I sit here a fool, sickened that I unwittingly led the magazine, a group of caring, diligent editors, and our readers into John Boudreau’s troubled world and his web of deceit. I recklessly ran the red lights that arose while writing this story and sped past all of the basic reporting, which is heresy for a 22-year veteran of the craft. For that, I apologize. I should have seen it from a mile away, and I didn’t see it from nose to nose.

And that describes how close the relationship had become since John Boudreau called into my radio program a few years ago. He identified himself as a Marine, and I thanked him for his service, as I did each subsequent time he called, however infrequently, but enough that I recognized him. So I didn’t think much of it when he asked to swing by the studio to meet the crew. As always, I obliged, as I like to foster a community feel. I recall John Boudreau’s visit some 18 months ago quite clearly because he was a likable bloke, and he put some of the crew members in a Marine choke hold. During one of the breaks late in the show, he then regaled us with stories supposedly from the front line as a Marine sniper. I was riveted.

And so it began. He visited the studio again a couple of months later, but I will tell you that he was not a pest, nor did he raise a single eyebrow. Quite the opposite, in fact: Everyone liked him. His stories that day rose in depth and gravity, and I was intrigued. Writers are stricken by various forms of curiosity, and for me, it is navigating new worlds. You see, we all reside in these subsets, differentiated by, say, vocation or culture or life experience. These worlds provide a means of travel, a great learning vehicle— assuming, of course, the worlds are real. As I probed, I discovered what I thought was a man struggling with the horrors of war and his own actions. The man professed to be spiritually broken, so much so that he feared for his eternal soul.

And he bared his soul to me, so I thought. He would call and text at all hours of the night, riddled by memory and conscience and nightmares that left him sleepless. I urged to him seek professional guidance on numerous occasions. I felt awful for him. I thought he was an emotionally wounded soldier, and that the very least I could do was provide an ear. I suggested to him that he write down his thoughts and memories as a cathartic tool, and the more he shared with me the more I was seduced by his story. By the end of last summer, I set up a dinner meeting with John Boudreau and Philadelphia magazine editor Tom McGrath. I wanted another seasoned ear to hear his tale.

And that’s when I set out to write an intimate portrait of a haunted man. I wanted the piece to be strictly through his eyes and from his vantage point. Some stories are best told that way—from the inside-out, as opposed to the outside-in, working a circle around the subject. In hindsight, I had already committed a terrible sin. I had let my guard down and decided that everything that John Boudreau told me was gospel, when in fact it was bad fiction. I didn’t verify his stories, and I’m ashamed to say the thought never even crossed my mind that he concocted most of what he told me. I will tell you that I had countless correspondence with this man, and I sit here stunned. I was actually quite proud of the piece. I spent months on it, laboring over every word. I shared it with friends and family. I don’t know what stabs at me more: that I prayed for this man on countless nights, crawling into his twisted cocoon with fantastic gullibility, or that the story provides a disservice to the true heroes who protect our nation.

Read Philly Mag editor Tom McGrath’s “A Retraction and an Apology” here.