RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The ABC11 I-Team has discovered that North Carolina Secretary of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Lt. General Walter Gaskin wrote a letter of recommendation vouching for a former Montford Point Marines Association member who's been thrown out of the group for claiming military honors he didn't earn.
There's been a major shakeup at the national nonprofit the Montford Point Marine Association. Our sister station KGO originally reported three organization officials were caught exaggerating their own military records and awards, according to military records obtained by KGO.
Billy Ray Zinnerman was the Western Region Public Relations Officer and Chairman of the Scholarship Committee. Our sister station, KGO found he was kicked out of the group for faking a decades-long military career. He claimed to have a 25 year military career in which he earned medals for being injured in combat and Desert Storm.
The ABC11 I-Team has learned the North Carolina Secretary of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Lt. General Walter Gaskin wrote a recommendation letter for Zinnerman last year when he ran for city council in Maricopa, Arizona.
In the letter written by Gaskin, he stated he witnessed "first-hand" Zinnerman's "superior performance, bravery and dedication to duty while in combat in Desert Storm/Desert Shield in Iraq and the Liberation of Kuwait."
Military records show Zinnerman was never in Iraq.
ABC11 went to the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to find out why Secretary Gaskin would sign off on something that apparently was not true.
Davis: "Did you write this letter?"
Gaskin: "Of course I wrote the letter. You saw the signature on the letter. The letter is not the issue."
But the question remained of why he claimed to know about Zinnerman's supposed service in Desert Storm.
Davis: "So, you didn't verify the information."
Gaskin: "I didn't verify the information because I was there."
Gaskin told the I-Team he was stationed in Korea and went to see the results of Desert Storm in Kuwait.
Davis: "We know Zinnerman was not there."
Gaskin: "Zinnerman was an African American Gunnery Sergeant at the unit I saw. At a later time in discussions with him, he told me it was him."
Davis: "So you never saw him there."
Gaskin: "I don't know if it was him or not now after this. I remember seeing an African American Gunnery Sergeant when I was there. When he approached me he reminded me of the time when we were in Kuwait."
Gaskin admitted to not verifying Zinnerman's service record before writing the letter that stated he "watched his performance" in combat. Instead, he said he relied on Zinnerman's word.
An ABC Owned Television Stations documentary last year spotlighted the many contributions of the Montford Point Marines, the first African American recruits to report to basic training camp at Camp Montford Point, a segregated section of Camp Lejeune. Between 1942 and 1949 at the height of World War II, 20,000 men trained there. While many of the trailblazers have died, their families are being awarded replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal for their unsung role in history.
Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the Montford Point Marines integrating the Marine Corps. A ceremony was held at Camp Lejeune in August of 2022 to honor the families of the original Black marines.
"It meant so much for my father to be honored for the things he went through," said Rocky Mount resident Shirley Deberry.
Deberry is the proud daughter of a Montford Point Marine and she calls the wearing of unearned medals a disgrace.
Davis: "If your father were alive, what do you think he'd say?"
Deberry: "He would be appalled. If he were living today he'd say how dare they put on a medal or ribbon they did not earn."
Gaskin told ABC11 the stolen valor accusations raised in the KGO report have not impacted the leadership of the Montford Point Marine Association.
"You are using that particular incident of what happened in Kuwait to associate with the Montford Point Marine Association is absolutely BS," he said.
ABC11 reached out to the Montford Point Marine Association about Gaskin admitting to writing the letter. We were told he is a life member of the organization and the president will look into the matter.
Zinnerman told the I-Team "no comment", but denied any wrongdoing to our sister station KGO.