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The Karate Kidder
A local martial arts talent has won over the press and some of the top brass in the U.S. military, but he's prone to tall tales and outright fabrications
By Matt Pulle
Photo by Eric England Chris Garland is not a soldier, but he plays one on TV. A talented martial artist who once served in the Army, Garland has been featured nearly 10 times in the last three years on WSMV-Channel 4 for his military exploits and expertise at self-defense. In front of the camera, he's a natural, whether he's shooting a bow through a bull's-eye blindfolded, shearing the tops of bottles with his bare hands or recounting his faith in Jesus Christ.
But Garland is more than just a faith-based fighter. The 31-year-old Beech High School graduate has worked with the Department of Defense and the U.S. military, traveling at a moment's notice to war-torn nations, working behind-the-scenes with soldiers and high-ranking government officials. Some of the top brass in the American military know Garland and lavish praise on his bravery, patriotism and work ethic.
"I was so impressed with his method of instruction that at the age of 45 I became one of his students," Colonel David Fox wrote in an email. Fox has served as a battalion commander of the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, one of only 15 Special Forces commanders. "His training gave me the confidence and the skills I needed to survive while engaged in combat in Afghanistan."
Garland's military and martial arts skills have been giddily recounted by The Tennessean, the Nashville Scene, All the Rage and Tae Kwon Do Times, in addition to Channel 4, which might as well be his unofficial network. WZTV-FOX 17's morning show interviewed the tough, telegenic Garland about how martial arts can prepare you for nearly any situation. Kiplinger's Finance even ran a short story about how Chris and his then-wife saved more than $50,000 to place a down payment on a new home near Vanderbilt. Fighter, military contractor, personal finance whiz. Garland seems to be a jack-of-all-trades.
Taken collectively, the press accounts of Garland's life make him out be a real-life action figure, a tough-guy hybrid of Vin Diesel and Jackie Chan. At the age of 17, the credentials go, he served in U.S. Special Forces, the elite branch of the military reserved for only the bravest and smartest soldiers. Special Forces are trained to fight behind enemy lines and in other dangerous locations conventional troops can't reach. Not only did Garland join this bastion of alpha-maledom when he was only a teenager, he trained them as well. And there's more. Garland was an Army Ranger, served in the Gulf War and was later deployed in the Balkans. Finally, he just happens to be a master in Hapkido, a Korean martial art.
Photos by Eric England Unfortunately, there's a major problem with what's been reported about Nashvillian Chris Garland. Much of it is the stuff of pure urban legend, inexplicably propagated by gullible reporters, Garland says, unwilling to take the fall. To his critics, which include enlisted soldiers and martial artists alike, he is a brash, excitable teller of tall tales. Despite several press accounts to the contrary, Garland put in an unremarkable two-year stint in the Army from 1993-1995 in Fort Riley, Kan., and was honorably discharged as a specialist. He was in high school during the Gulf War and never saw combat in the Balkans—or anywhere else for that matter. He never served in Special Forces. He was no more an Army Ranger than, well, Vin Diesel. The VeriSEAL Group, an independent outfit that tracks false military claims, lists Christopher Garland in its Hall of Shame. And as far as being a master in Hapkido, one of his former martial arts instructors says that while Garland has considerable talent, he throws around that label recklessly.
Garland says that careless reporters have confused his military record and that he's hardly to blame for the series of fabrications that have burnished his reputation. Now, it's true that Garland has worked as a Department of Defense subcontractor and has trained U.S. Special Forces in hand-to-hand combat, which is just one of dozens of things they need to know. What happens, Garland says, is that when he tells that to reporters and shows them photographs of himself with Special Forces units, they mistake that for membership.
"I have never told anyone I was a Navy SEAL, I was a Green Beret or I was a Ranger," he says over coffee one Saturday. "This has taught me a lesson. I need to see what's written about me before it comes out."
None of the press accounts of Garland that the Scene reviewed quotes him directly making a false claim. It just so happens that in almost every story reported about Garland, there are major mistakes and questionable claims, nearly all of which just happened to help promote his business, Executive Martial Arts.
At least two journalists say that Garland misled their publications about his military service. Earlier this year, Hollie Shulick, a writer at All the Rage, a local Gannett weekly aimed at younger readers, profiled Garland and reported that he joined Special Forces at the age of 17, which would be a remarkable achievement considering that most soldiers serve about five years in the military before the highly competitive selection process even commences. An annoyed soldier at Fort Campbell and the VeriSEAL group alerted the paper to its error, and it made a correction on its website. So how did Shulick erroneously report that Garland was a member of Special Forces? All the Rage managing editor Kristen Whittlesey writes in an email that "Chris Garland did tell Hollie Shulick flat-out that he was in Special Forces."
The weekly's website later added that Garland trained Special Forces at the young age of 17. Garland says that when he first enlisted, soldiers in the Special Forces learned that he was skilled in martial arts. He helped instruct them, although he admits he doesn't have the paperwork to prove it.
Steve Waterman, a former Navy first-class diver, who was a part of the VeriSEAL group that helped expose the errant stories on Garland, doubts that he ever trained Special Forces at such a young age. "There's no way. What would he be able to teach them?" he says, bristling at all the false reporting on Garland. "They would laugh at him."
Channel 4 reporter Dennis Ferrier, who wrongly reported that Garland was an Army Ranger, says that he doesn't remember if Garland told him that or if it was his mistake. In any case, Garland says that he doesn't recall if he called Ferrier to correct him after his erroneous report aired.
Yet another journalist who doesn't want to be named says that Garland also misled that writer's publication about his military service. "We just took him on his word. We didn't think anybody would lie about that," the journalist says. "Then we received several letters correcting us about his background."
Then there's a question about an old page on his martial arts website, sent to the Scene by one of Garland's many detractors in the Fort Campbell area. The bio reads that Garland was a Ranger in the U.S. Armed Forces and entered the Special Forces at the age of 18. Again, pure fiction.
Garland wonders if that bio was ever on his website or whether somebody fabricated it. But his current bio reads remarkably similar to that, and adds that he's enrolled in acting classes. "With the ageing (sic) of some of Hollywood's martial arts actors such as Chuck Norris, Steven Segal and Claude Van Dam (sic), Chris is poised to be a future star," it reads.
Some of the items penned about Garland border on pure comedy. In a 2000 newsletter from a martial arts group in Jacksonville, Fla., announcing a Hapkido demonstration by Chris Garland, it adds that he has "two movies that will be released in theaters this year." No, he didn't. (He also told the Scene in 2003 that he was to be in a movie, and we're still waiting for the trailer.) Garland says he doesn't remember what the newsletter wrote about him.
In addition, several sources have told the Scene that Garland identified himself as a former Army Ranger, which is a part of Army Special Operations Forces. Michael Rhoades, who actually is a former Army Ranger, met Chris Garland in Savannah, Ga., during a visit of Korean dignitaries. "He showed us pictures with him in his uniform before he even knew that I was in the Army," Rhoades recalls. "Based on the unit and insignia patches, they just didn't match the unit he claimed to be in."
Rhoades speculates that Garland bought the patches.
Garland denies ever saying he was a former Army Ranger and says that Rhoades, himself a martial arts instructor in Missouri, is jealous of Garland's success. But other sources, including soldiers and civilians, corroborate Rhoades story.
"He told outward lies," says John Renken, who works as a civilian contractor for 5th Special Forces. "He told them that he jumped into Panama." Interestingly, that's something Army Rangers have done.
In addition to his apparent penchant for telling tall tales, Garland has a short fuse, according to several accounts. In 1998 and 1999, three individuals filed police incident reports against Garland. Two women in separate cases both alleged that he shoved them in a rage. Another man said that after an argument at a Waffle House, Garland tried to intimidate him by yelling, "I'm an officer of the law," which would be yet another lie. Garland also allegedly grabbed his pistol and pulled it halfway out of the holster.
There is no record at the Criminal Court Clerk's office of any charges or convictions in these incidents.Garland denied any wrongdoing in all the above incidents. (He also had the ex-boyfriend of one of his female accusers call the Scene and say that she was a drug addict.)
Michael Rhoades, the former Army Ranger and Jin Jung Kwan Hapkido instructor, says that Garland is not well regarded in the martial arts community. Though talented, he has been known to intimidate other martial artists whom he views as a threat.
"It's a shame that Chris Garland's claims, negative attitude and his reprehensible behavior toward others reflects on all martial artists," Rhoades writes in an email. "As far as Chris Garland's technique, I feel he is a good technician and does not need to threaten people or blow things out of proportion. I only want honor to be brought to Jin Jung Kwan and martial arts alike."
What's maddening about Garland, many people say, is that there's no need for him to fabricate stories. It's not like he's been holed up in a Maryland Farms office building for the last 10 years. Garland has lived an exciting and compelling life, rife with danger and far-flung adventure. He trained special operations soldiers, including Navy SEALS, in Kuwait from January to May of 2003, while scud missiles were landing perilously close by. He worked with 5th Special Forces for nearly two years, teaching them the intricacies in hand-to-hand combat. All of that makes it that much more curious why this young local talent would advance a series of untruths about his life.
"Your willingness to deploy to a high-threat country in order to continue to train our soldiers reflected the highest standard of patriotism and selfless service," wrote Brigadier General John F. Mulholland in a letter Garland shared with the Scene. (A Fort Campbell spokesperson confirmed the letter's authenticity.)
Garland has also worked as a military contractor in Iraq, providing personal protection services for government officials, a hazardous and thankless job. And he's not only a gifted martial artist, but also a dazzling showman. Finally and most incredibly, Dolly Parton is a close friend of Garland's and even wrote a song about him called, "I'm Gonna Miss You."
Parton met Garland through his grandfather, Vassar Clements, a country fiddle legend. In an interview with CMT.com, Parton recalled Garland's trips to Afghanistan to conduct special training. "The first time he went over when the war first started, he said, 'I doubt that I'll ever come back from this, and so I want you to write a song and sing it at my funeral,' " Parton recalled. "And that made me very upset. Because I said, 'Don't talk like that. You're going to be coming back.' "
It's a sunny Sunday afternoon at Garland's Executive Martial Arts Studio, located in Hillwood Plaza along a stretch of Charlotte dominated by struggling strip malls and fast food restaurants. Paper with Asian lettering covers the windows of his studio. Inside, a few students are quietly practicing in the corner. A proud father captures images on a digital camera. Cloaked in a standard white robe, the bearded, shaggy-haired Garland is prepared to answer a series of questions about his past and his proficiency in Hapkido. He's equal parts charming, defensive, gracious and irritable.
Garland again insists that he never misled anyone about his military background, and he wants to make it clear that he's not just a strip mall sensei. In an earlier interview, he claimed that as a military contractor he was just as well trained as Special Forces soldiers. When asked about that comment, he reconsiders it. "I'm better trained than them," he insists sternly.
Later, he clarifies his remark, saying that he's better trained only in protecting ambassadors, U.S. government officials and other VIPs. That's what he does as a military contractor, often toiling in Iraq and other dangerous locations. Garland says that he works for several military contractors, although he won't name which ones, citing confidentiality requirements. He notes that he's been trained in special weapons and how to handle bomb threats. He also knows how to drive a range of vehicles and has received medical training. To corroborate his claims, he shows a Department of Defense Civilian Contractor Card. He also displays dozens of photos of himself carrying grenades and guns and official-looking documents clearing him to carry a weapon. He says he has protected John Negroponte (the first-ever director of U.S. intelligence), Colin Powell and Paul Bremer.
Later, Garland again reconsiders his earlier comment about his training. "My job is protecting people, and I'm an expert in that. My job is not to hunt people," he says, referring to real-life Special Forces soldiers. "I never wanted to make me sound like I'm better then them."
While some stories about Garland can clearly be debunked, his work as both a military contractor and a combat trainer is not in doubt. Major Sam McPherson, with the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, writes in an email that Garland has supported the Department of State's Diplomat Security Mission. In addition, he has received the Department of the Army's civilian equivalent of the Army's Commendation Medal for his deployment into a combat zone, McPherson says.
"Where other martial arts professionals talk about how they would love to deploy to such hostile areas of the world during this time, he sacrificed his successful civilian practice to deploy and train our Special Operations soldiers in a combat zone," McPherson writes in an email verified by a Fort Campbell spokesperson. "Mr. Garland is highly respected by the officers and soldiers of our Command for his bravery, knowledge, skill and professionalism."
Which isn't exactly true. There were some soldiers in the 5th Special Forces Group, whom he trained in hand-to-hand combat, who bristled under his instruction. They regarded him as a top-notch martial artist, who nevertheless struggled to relate to the real-life demands of their lives.
Much like he is in military circles, Chris Garland is a polarizing figure in the martial arts world as well. Many of them scoff at his claim that he's a master at Hapkido, a designation that means different things to different people. Garland dismisses those critics, showing a certificate with Korean lettering that appears to corroborate his master status in Hapkido. And he says none of his critics have the technical expertise he has. "I can slice a cucumber on your arm without hurting you," he says excitedly, referring to his swordsmanship.
At the same time, Garland says that he doesn't falsely promote himself. "Have I ever called myself a master? No," he says. But, interestingly, the domain name for one of Garland's websites is, you guessed it, MasterGarland.com.
In fact, few people doubt Garland's considerable talents. A former student, who is not one of his supporters, recalls a class where he lit a half-dozen concrete blocks on fire and shattered them with his head. Parents whose children study under Garland also praise his instruction and, interestingly, peaceful manner.
"He's so good with the kids. He's gentle and he tells them, 'This is for your protection. I don't want to ever hear that you're using this to fight others,' " says Richard Orga, who has known Garland for seven years. "My son is a better person for meeting Chris."
Grandmaster Seoung-Eui Shin: "Most of his stories aren't quite right," he says of Chris Garland. Photo by Josh Anderson Still, many say that he throws around the master label foolishly to promote his studio. Garland's former Tae Kwon Do instructor, the revered Grandmaster Seoung-Eui Shin, says that he had a falling out with his pupil over his false claims. "I talked to Chris and I said, 'Why do you lie about being a Hapkido master?' And I told him, 'If you continue to do that, then don't come here.' "
Shin also says that while Garland is talented, the claim on Garland's website that he made black belt in Tae Kwan Do at the age of 7 is false.
"Every time a story comes out, people call me," the soft-spoken Shin says from his office in Bellevue. "Most of his stories aren't quite right."
Jeff Allen, the chief instructor and president of the U.S. headquarters of the International Hapkido Federation, says that the certification process in Hapkido for Americans is poorly regulated. He doubts that Garland is really a master. "A master in Hapkido is somebody who has been training at least 15 to 20 years. You can't consider yourself a master until you're at least a fifth-degree black belt," he says. "I got my fifth-degree black belt after 24 years of study."
Photo by Eric England Only 31, Garland says he's been studying Hapkido since his early teens. He became a master in 1999, he says, after years of training every day around the clock.
Garland's current instructor, Grandmaster Kim Myung Yong, lauds his pupil's talent. "He's very good," he says from his home in Houston. "Chris is the best jin jung kwan martial artist in America."
Garland himself says that many of his detractors, both in the military and in the martial arts world, are envious of his notoriety. They dislike the attention he receives and feel that it comes at their own expense, he says. Members of the 5th Special Forces Group, especially, have complained about him in the past, he says, adding that they're "jealous of the respect he gets."
"I'm sorry for what was written in the papers, and I'm sorry if it's upset some members of the 5th Special Forces Group," he says. "But I don't want people to think I haven't served my country, because I have."
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