'Sergeant' Franck Gervais scandal: Why people impersonate soldiers

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Some individuals who impersonate police officers, firefighters or soldiers may be narcissistic and depressed, seeking to bypass their mundane life and experience, even briefly, for their own "moment in the sun."

"A lot of times it's extreme narcissism," said Max Wachtel, a Denver-based forensic psychologist. "The person really feels like they have to have that attention paid to them. It comes across as almost psychotic or delusional, because it's just such an unusual way to go about getting attention."

"The person is lying so much they start to believe it themselves that this is true. This is a common pattern for people who do this."

Franck Gervais, a west Quebec man who claimed to be a decorated soldier during Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial, is currently under investigation by Ottawa police. The Department of National Defence has said Gervais, who was interviewed while wearing an army dress uniform with sergeant's chevrons and the cap badge of the Royal Canadian Regiment, is not a member of the Canadian Forces.

People have been known to impersonate law enforcement officers for the sole purpose of exploiting others, by using a fake uniform or false credentials to gain access to unsuspecting people's home to rob or sexually assault them.​

Others, like Frank Abagnale, whose fake identities included a doctor, lawyer and pilot, and whose exploits were featured in the film Catch Me If You Can, seek financial reward for their scams.

But then there are others, pretending to be a police officer, or soldier, or firefighter, who just want the attention. For them, "it's not typically done for any kind of financial gain. It’s usually done to boost the person’s ego," Wachtel said. "At a Remembrance Day ceremony, if you’re in uniform, people are going to respect that."

These types of impostors will emulate police, soldiers or firefighters because of their status.

'The epitome of manhood'

"These guys are held up in the news and in society as being sort of the epitome of manhood — they're action-oriented, they’re macho and they have courage," said N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist and executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology & Forensic Behavioural Science.

"They gravitate to those positions that reflect in their mind this ideal, this coveted masculine ideal, of being like a real man," he said. "What, you're going to pretend that you’re a pet shop owner? Selling art supplies? I don’t think you’ll get any mileage out of that."

Many impostors are living mundane, boring or uneventful lives, Berrill said, adding that depression is often at the core of their behaviour. They may also have issues related to masculine inadequacy, and pretending to be soldiers, police officers or firefighters is a way of achieving some recognition and bolstering their sense of self.

"It’s like having a moment in the sun where they receive the accolades and the attention from others. And for a moment in an otherwise dreary and perhaps depressive world, they feel special and they feel well thought of and admired."

This kind of behaviour could reflect a personality disorder, but there's no specific disorder associated with these types of actions, Berrill said.

Quite often, because these types of individuals are trying to gratify something very basic in their personal lives, they don’t always see the consequences of their actions, which can lead to criminal charges. While many may not intentionally want to harm anyone, they may do just that, especially if they try to involve themselves in a policing matter.

Harm not intended

"Sometimes they will jump out and direct traffic or they’ll do something crazy at a car accident, possibly hurting themselves or hurting other people," Berrill said.

They are also incapable of realizing that their impersonation is insulting and distressing to those individuals who really have served or are currently serving in those roles, or family members who have lost loved ones.

"And I don’t think they have the capacity, psychologically, to really consider those issues, because as part of the depression I’d also say there’s an infantile narcissism. Meaning, like babies, like young infants, they’re trying to be gratified through these acts."

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