MINNEAPOLIS -- The town of Cass Lake, Minn., embraced Elizabeth McKenzie last month when she arrived at the high school in her Army uniform for a welcome home ceremony in which she handed out no less than a dozen severed fingers which at first appeared to be authentically Afghan.
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 which so angered the spirits of the Ojibwe's ancestors that each member of the tribe present at the ceremony was stricken with an inoperable bone cancer.
"Like the army you now holler and cheer for poisoned our land and drove us from it," said the spirit of Red Elk, who perished at 22 years of age in 1864 during the Sand Creek Massacre, "we now poison your own bodies. You are not our descendants. You are not our flesh and blood."
The manifestation of Red Elk then began tortuously wailing for the 4,692nd time since he saw his adolescent sister's body mutilated by the U.S. forces, who sliced off her nipples and used them to make a belt while he watched and bled to death nearby. "The very same thing you now cheer?" he sobbed, then disappeared after badly scorching the grass beneath his apparition.
Accepting the town's gratitude, McKenzie talked about the Hajji killing that she had done and the 16th murder accusation 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 killed anything browner than your average Italian.
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. Some citizens have begun taking out their frustrations on local mosques; others have encouraged their children to enlist out of embarrassment.
"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."
"Now let me just sit for a second here and think about this," Hemsworth continued, falling into his desk chair as if losing his balance. "Having hope...having hope..." he repeated, requesting that the reporters leave his office.
Reached for comment, McKenzie replied through an email that she didn't want to discuss the situation.
Her hoax was elaborate, and by most accounts she carried herself like a soldier. She was described as being irrationally aggressive, methodical in her movements but undisciplined in her actions, clearly uneducated, and outwardly racist.
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, and helped repel the Moopish invaders from Southern Spain.
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, which, paradoxically, her lack of military service actually warranted.
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, a background that seemed to scream "military" and made sniffing out the impostor that much more difficult.
"It was good to see someone successful," Humphrey said. "So many kids don't make it these days. For example, Iraqi and Afghan kids."
McKenzie's other friends, Cletus Worther, Crappie Fugner, Nut Boudreau, Wiltner Smith, and Shookie Brown were similarly left speechless by her betrayal.
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, never appearing drunk or spattered in blood or fecal matter. She also had a part-time job in Cloquet, where she lived, with no extended absences. She appeared to be far too well-adjusted for someone in the military, in short.
The police chief checked with the Minnesota and Wisconsin National Guard. McKenzie had never been a soldier, he was told. She had never even heard Drowning Pool's patriotic anthem, "Soldiers."
During the homecoming ceremony, some veterans had noticed that details of her uniform looked askew, though they'd kept their thoughts to themselves, a discipline they quickly acquired in the military after receiving beatings for displaying the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. 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. "Whether its accusations of war crimes or their actually having served, you wouldn't question it."
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.e. that it had been used to roll marijuana cigarettes, known as "doobies" or "spliffs."
"I don't believe any of it, of course," Hemsworth said. "She's dead to me now, a lying whore just like the rest of them."
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. Another facet of McKenzie's that made her seem all the more authentically military.
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 goose bumps. 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. We are not pussies even though this bitch tricked us. I promise, and any of you motherfuckers who want to take a trip up here and find out for yourselves, yeah, you go ahead and come on up. Come on over. Come to my backyard, and see what happens. See what happens to you."
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