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The Food Network and former Marine Josh Adam Garcia, a competitor on the network’s “The Next Food Network Star,” embellished information about his culinary and Marine Corps experience

By C. Mark Brinkley – Staff writer

Military service helped former Marine cook Josh A. Garcia land a shot at fame, and now it appears to be helping him stay in the running.

Garcia, who goes by the nickname “JAG” as a contestant on the reality show “The Next Food Network Star,” dodged elimination again Sunday night thanks to a solid performance in a military-inspired challenge at Fort Dix, N.J.

But because the bulk of the episodes were taped weeks ago, soldiers who participated in the event and supported Garcia didn’t know of his embellished military record.

Originally promoting himself as having deployed to Afghanistan before leaving the service as a corporal and graduating from the New York Restaurant School, Garcia, 26, defines himself on the show through his military service. After the season began June 3, however, Military Times found that Garcia was discharged as a private eight months before his enlistment contract was set to end, never deployed to Afghanistan and never graduated from the cooking school he once attended.

Asked to explain the inconsistencies in a June 11 interview, Garcia admitted that he allowed producers to “believe what they wanted to believe” and allowed the “war hero” notion to take hold during final selections for the show.

“It’s my fault,” he said. “I let them believe it – that’s my fault.”

The Food Network eliminated any references to Afghanistan from Garcia’s online biography in response to Military Times’ inquiry and promised to investigate the situation. Because of the military theme at Fort Dix, Garcia was the center of attention, even getting teary at the end.

“I went through a lot in the military,” Garcia told the judges at the end of the show, in which he and his teammate were the favorite contestants of the Army crowd. “As soon as I walked into that room, I smelled CLP. CLP is what you use to clean your weapons. It took me back for a second.”

While visiting Fort Dix, the contestants were given two challenges — spice up an otherwise boring Meal, Ready to Eat food ration, and whip up a comfort-food meal for 75 hungry soldiers. Garcia turned a pork rib MRE into a spicy chipotle stew, and helped his partner whip up a deep-fried meatloaf after the mess hall oven they were using failed to heat up for baking.

One soldier interviewed on the show said he supported Garcia for being a former Marine.

But a visitor to the Military Times online message boards claiming to be a soldier who participated in the event at Fort Dix, said he felt duped after learning the truth about Garcia’s past.

“I hope the food network takes the appropriate action and cans him,” wrote “SSG C” in a June 22 posting.

Network officials have not announced what action, if any, might result from Garcia’s tall tales. The series is almost entirely prerecorded, with guest judges narrowing the field down to the final two contestants before turning the final decision over to viewer voting. As of Tuesday, no portions of the final episode had been taped.

“Food Network remains committed to fully investigating Josh Garcia’s background,” Cara Brugnoli, a network spokeswoman, said Tuesday. “We are working with the military and others to conduct our research and we will release any relevant details when appropriate.”

The winner of the contest — now down from 11 competitors to just five, including Garcia — gets a six-episode deal for their own Food Network series.

But pretending to be a combat veteran for any reason should not be taken lightly, said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of the non-profit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“That’s absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “It’s an insult to the 1.6 million Americans who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The network should own up to the mistake publicly, he said, and if Garcia wins, should make a healthy donation to a veteran’s group, such as Fisher Househousing for families near hospitals where military members and veterans are receiving care.

“The Food Network stands to make a lot of money off his show,” Rieckhoff said. “That would be the right thing to do.”

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