Earl Granville remembers someone from Outside Magazine taking the picture after he’d finished a 60-hour, 70-plus mile Spartan Race. There’s Earl, his prosthetic leg in frame, decked in a black-and-white shirt that reads “Agoge.”
That’s the name of the grueling, two-and-a-half-day endurance test he’d just finished. It’s a race so rigorous, even for those without a prosthesis to worry about, that “Every man dies, but not every man lives” is its tagline.
Granville lived, and he’s been in the news plenty since that race. This past April, he made national headlines when he slung his race guide, Andi Piscopo, over his shoulder and carried her across the finish line of the Boston Marathon. ABC News even wrote it up: “Veteran Who Lost Leg in Afghanistan Carries Friend Across Boston Marathon Finish Line.”
But this past month, Granville started getting messages from friends and fans on Facebook about that year-old Agoge picture. Somebody with an explosive political opinion was clearly making a bunch of money using Earl’s face to hawk some shirts, and they weren’t sure he was in on it.
“They screenshotted and sent it to me in a Facebook post,” said Granville. “They saw someone selling that shirt.”
Someone had scraped off the Agoge logo from the front of his shirt with Photoshop. Granville’s face and pose and prosthetic leg remain, but now the shirt reads, “I don’t kneel,” below an American flag.
Granville doesn’t know who did it, but he’s doing whatever he can to get it taken down.
“If somebody asked for my permission, I would’ve said no. But I didn’t hear anything from any of them,” said Granville.
That image was used to sell T-shirts all across the web. One page created an entire web store around it called “ineel” that’s since been taken down. The associated Facebook page, which was called “Veteran Talk” and is now known as “Veteran’s Pride” to its nearly 25,000 subscribers, is still live.
“There’s one page in particular [Veteran’s Pride] where I reached out to them. I can see they read the message. Since then, I’ve been blocked,” Granville said.
Veteran’s Pride did not respond to a request for comment. An identical shirt to the one sold by “ineel’s” online store was shown off on conservative commentator Tomi Lahren’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, attached to a post about how National Football League players should “salute the flag to honor those who fought, died, and sacrificed.”
Etsy stores using Granville’s Photoshopped image and Lahren’s words remain live on Etsy, selling the same shirt.
By last week, at the peak of the political firestorm around NFL protests, a verified Facebook page with 3 million subscribers called “The Political Insider” shared the doctored image along with the words, “Thank Him for His Service. Share.” Granville tried to get them to pull the image by Facebook Messenger, but received an automated response.
The post is still up, and efforts to reach the Facebook page’s administrators did not receive a response. At press time, The Political Insider’s post alone has 57,880 shares, 9,200 comments, and 64,000 likes.
“It’s become some random photo on the internet,” said Granville. “They don’t know the backstory.”
Since Granville lost his leg in a roadside bomb explosion in Afghanistan nine years ago, he’s participated in just about any marathon or punishing endurance race you can think of.
He’s also dedicated his life to advocating ways to prevent suicide, after his brother Joe committed suicide while on active duty two years after Earl returned from combat.
“I talk about my ideas of battling mental adversity in living a fulfilling life full of a purpose, a passion, and a part of something bigger than ourselves,” said Granville.
Granville has been busy giving public speeches to “spread his philosophy for anybody struggling.” He really does not have time to take down every Photoshopped picture of himself giving a hot-button political opinion he never really gave.
“I make an effort to keep the politics out of it. I’m not here to talk about what my stance is,” said Granville.
“I understand it’s a hot item at the moment. But to see somebody profiting on this—to think, ‘Here’s an image of a guy missing his leg, maybe he looks military’—to use that as that agenda to sell a product? That’s where I needed to step in.”
That made-up narrative, using Granville’s likeness but not his story, has already swept the internet. When you reverse Google Image search Granville’s real picture, it returns mostly Photoshopped shots of Earl wearing the “I Don’t Kneel” shirt.
The meme made its way to Reddit this week, becoming a top post on the web’s most active Donald Trump fan forum, r/The_Donald. A user named “InPepeWeTrust” posted the doctored picture alongside the caption “Show your support for our flag! Don’t watch the NFL today!!!”
For now, Granville is just happy fewer people are making money off of the phony picture. A nonprofit he works with has been filing cease-and-desist orders against companies clearly profiting off his identity.
“I didn’t want to do anything about it, at first. And I feel petty doing that, but I don’t what else to do. I feel like I’m in high school with this,” he said.
Now, he hopes more people hear his real story, the incredible one about channeling adversity into superhuman strength. Earl Granville climbed a bunch of mountains for almost three full days. All he got was a much better T-shirt than the one most people think he’s wearing.