The Stolen Valor Epidemic and Why Civilians Should Care

The Stolen Valor Law of 2013 makes it a Federal offense punishable by fines and imprisonment to falsely claim military honors or awards to affect personal, tangible gain. Additional charges, local, state and Federal may also apply. For the full text of the law, go here.

This issue is not about Freedom of Speech and doesn’t really impact the loudmouths at the local watering hole hoping to get free drinks and special attention with stories of derring-do. Technically, they are receiving tangible personal financial gain, but the chances of the bar stool warrior being prosecuted are slim, as they should be. In the SCOTUS decision to strike down the previous incarnation of this law, Justice Kennedy wrote something along the lines of, false speech can and should be sufficiently countered with public ridicule.

When Stolen Valor becomes a prosecutable issue, it generally involves other charges of fraud. Some think the SV law is superfluous. If someone falsely claims something and based on those false claims receives something, that is prosecutable, and even punishable by imprisonment. So, why a special law about military awards?

There are parallels with other segments of our society. Some groups who when wronged because of their status have recourse with enhanced penalties. Hate crimes, acts committed against a person because of the color of their skin, sexual orientation or age are seen to deserve additional punishments. Attack someone because of your opinion of them based on these characteristics and a simple assault charge becomes a felony.

There are those who believe hate crime charges, as well as prosecution under Stolen Valor qualify for classification as Orwellian. The defense in these cases often cite the dangers of “Thought Policing”. The flaw with this thinking, in our criminal justice system, is simply that motive is a significant factor. Motive, the thoughts of the offender, are the difference between manslaughter and murder. There is, and should be a difference in the punishment for ‘I’m robbing you because I want what you have’, and ‘I’m robbing you because you are white and I hate white people. Oh, and yeah, I want what you have.’

Another complaint about the Stolen Valor law, even from some within the military and veteran communities, is that we are creating another, protected class of person with this law. For those within the MilVet world, there is a certain bristling at the idea that they need special protection. For those on the outside expressing objections, it often comes from an overall disdain of those who served. Both of these of these are looking at the issue in the wrong way.

Stolen Valor has nothing to do with the personal, with the individual or collective military members. Stolen Valor protects an ideal.

Our Nation’s highest military honors are awarded to a staggeringly small percentage of the overall population. Even measured against the one-half of one percent who currently serve, the decimal point is followed by a bunch of zeros. It is so fine and rare to receive a Medal of Honor, falsely claiming one carries enhanced penalties all of it’s own.

Stolen Valor isn’t only about the highest honors and medals. As a prosecutable offense it is restricted to false claims regarding the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy or Air Force Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart or any of the five Combat Badges, i.e., CIB, CAB, CMB, CAR, CIM for some form of benefit. Stolen Valor as a larger issue, the part that is not prosecutable under the 2013 Act is, contrary to popular belief, not a victimless crime.

Beyond the damage liars, fakers, posers and embellishers cause in the public perception, there is almost always actual financial damage done as well. In addition, it is never a surprise to the MilVet community when a poser is also accused of assault or other violent crimes. Those who perpetrate Stolen Valor do so as an expression of their character, a trait consistent with other criminal behavior.

There are different types of Stolen Valor, and I have a hard time deciding which is the overall winner of the biggest scumbag award, the only medal, honor or recognition they actually deserve. Read through these, and tell me which is the worst. Or, if there is another classification I’ve missed.

The Embellisher

I think this is the most common, and commonly though mistakenly believed most harmless sort. This is the person who actually did serve, often in a time of war though not in the capacity or rank they claim. The cook becomes a sniper responsible for 127 kills. The Private in the motor pool becomes a Sergeant, a fearless and beloved tank commander who pulled his squad out of the burning vehicle while simultaneously zeroing in on and decimating an entrenched enemy position.

The saddest examples of the embellishers are those who actually did see combat and even earned a Purple Heart but don’t feel one Purple Heart is enough, so they claim another. This example is sad because when their lies are found out, whatever honor or respect they had for the Purple Heart they did receive is now at best tarnished.

Everyone I’ve ever spoken to who has actually deployed to a combat zone and actually saw combat has said, sincerely, they do not hold anything against those who didn’t. Those who have been there and done that recognize the simple fact that if not for all those behind the lines and even stateside, they would not have been able to do what they did. It’s hard to fight without bullets, on an empty stomach. They give credit to their entire team – even the cook and supply clerk.

It is primarily in the civilian mind that service that did not include exposure to enemy fire is somehow less honorable. Unfortunately, some who have served on other than the front lines still have a civilian mind.

Because combat vets ridicule non-combat posers who claim action they never saw, some think this contradicts the idea that all service is viewed as equally honorable. That reasoning confuses honorable non-combat service and dishonorable lying. This is not a matter of semantics, grayness or degrees. If you served with honor and do not claim more than you did, you will find yourself respected equally by combat vets. If a combat vet does not follow this dictate, it is a mark of their individual character.

Embellishers are the most pernicious sort. They count on the fact that most civilians know next to nothing about military service. They are aware that most civilians would be surprised to learn that just because you deployed doesn’t mean you get a Combat Infantry Badge, for example. They also know that most civilians, myself included, cannot tell what all the ribbons, bars and decorations on their uniforms mean; we are just dazzled by the pretty colors and size of the racks on their chests.

The Veteran Panhandler

I’ll probably get hate mail for this, but it is an unprovable statistic that vast majority of those standing by the side of the road with a sign claiming Viet Nam veteran status are liars. Go here for a fuller discussion. But, there is one number set to bear in mind the next time you see one of these men – or women:

Less than 1 million Viet Nam combat vets are still alive today, yet as of the 2000 Census, more than 13 million falsely claimed to be Viet Nam combat vets.

Panhandlers who claim to be veterans are in my opinion one of the primary causes of negative stereotypes about veterans. They are at least as responsible as the worst of the leftist liberals, Hollywood and media sensationalizers. They are what those who hold the military in the highest disdain point to as proof of their negative views. And most, nearly every last one of these sidewalk moochers are liars. Statements about their veteran status should be taken in the same vein as promises the change you give them will only go for something to eat.

The Dishonorably Discharged

This group often falls into multiple categories. They are liars, often panhandlers and frequently guilty of stolen valor as a concept and the Stolen Valor law.

Their lies start when they claim to be a veteran. In my definition, one I share with everyone in the MilVet community, if you are Dishonorably Discharged from the military, you do not deserve the title of veteran. To be considered a veteran, you must have honorably served.

There is an argument that goes on about how some have been discharged with a Dishonorable because of PTSD-induced drug addiction, alcohol abuse or other criminal acts they would not have committed if not for their PTSD. This line of excuses is an insult to both those who genuinely have PTSD and the military and veteran community as a whole. Dishonorables are a character definition as much as a discharge classification.

For the record, there are five types of discharge -

Honorable – self explanatory. Service completed, with honor, eligible for all benefits reserved for veterans. The vast majority receive this discharge. Even during the height of the anti-Viet Nam Veteran hysteria, 97% of all who served in that Era received an Honorable Discharge.

General – while this is considered a less than honorable, it also covers illnesses and medical discharges, though most who are injured or ill as a result of their service, i.e, wounded receive Honorable Discharges. In short, it means that service was not completed with honor; part of that ‘with honor’ means fulfillment of all duties, responsibilities and obligations Drug abuse, as long as there are no other mitigating circumstances either positive or negative, will result in an General Discharge. General-Medical usually signifies more than just a medical issue.

For example, I know one who went on leave, got drunk and wrapped his car around a tree. Somehow, he escaped civilian DUI charges, but he injured himself sufficiently to be rendered ‘no longer combat able’. According to the military, he did it to himself, not in the line of duty, due to irresponsible, less than honorable behavior. Hence, the General-Medical discharge classification. General Discharges are entitled to some but not all veteran benefits. Among those they can receive is, if they are income qualified, care at the VA.

Other Than Honorable Discharge –  is an administrative discharge. You get this one when you are in the military and in trouble with civilian courts. You are barred from ever reenlisting and restricted from receiving most veteran benefits.

Bad Conduct – means just that. It signifies military jail time as a result of behavior significant enough to warrant charges. A Bad Conduct discharge disqualifies a person from receiving any veteran benefits.

Dishonorable Discharge – this is usually the result of a Court Martial, but not always. You are forever barred from reenlisting, receiving any veteran benefits and usually spent time in a military prison. Dishonorable Discharges are vilified in the military and veteran community and make up the majority of those former members of the military (don’t call them veterans) who did actually serve and are now littering the sides of the roads with their ‘veteran needs help’ signs.

The Wannabe or Never Was

These are the most annoying, and usually the easiest to spot. The twenty something slovenly pig whose spine is incapable of attaining ‘Attention’ posture, wearing fatigues as he browses the snack food aisle at WalMart probably never made it past Cub Scouts.

This is the guy who will regale all near and far with talk of his exploits, his sharpshooter status and invariably claims his records are ‘in the black file’. For those whose understandings of all things military don’t extend beyond movies, novels, or video games, here’s a newsflash – there is NO SUCH THING as a ‘black file’. Nor are military service records so sealed that a person can’t produce proof in the form of a DD-214, the military discharge papers everyone, everyone receives.

Likewise, there is no such thing as a medal, award or honor not appearing on a DD-214 because it is top-secret or classified. In exceedingly rare cases, the mission or circumstances that resulted in a medal or ribbon may be classified, but the award itself will still be listed. Further, all DD-214’s are publicly available though they will be redacted to protect an individual’s personal information. Anyone can request a copy of a DD-214 on anyone simply by contacting the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

This brings up another issue with proof of military service. Liars, posers and frauds, particularly those who never served or those who were less than honorably discharged often claim their records were destroyed in ‘the fire’.

There was in fact a devastating fire at the NPRC. But, two caveats. The fire occurred in 1973. And it only affected Army records of service between 1912 and 1960 and Air Force service between 1947 and 1964. So, the guy in the Viet Nam hat who claims Rambo was based on his life but he can’t prove it because his records were lost in ‘the fire’? Liar. Soon, there will be no one left alive whose records were affected; most are already gone.

As it is, anyone under the age of approximately 70 who dares make this claim is at best suspect. That doesn’t mean that everyone who says it isn’t telling the truth, even today. My father was one of those whose records were in fact lost. Sadly, because of the fire, he was not able to be buried with military honors. Miraculously, nearly a decade after he died, I did find his original DD-214 in a box from his mother’s attic.

I’m a civilian, why should I care?

Charitable Contributions- Accepting the facts that the vast majority of civilians hold the military and our veterans in ‘high esteem’, and that we are a generous people, Stolen Valor is an issue that affects everyone. There are a limited number of charitable dollars out there, and when a poser, lair or embellisher is outed, those who were inclined to give to a charity based on what are now known to be lies are less inclined to do so in the future. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…

No one wants to feel foolish, conned or ripped off. The best advice I can offer if you are thinking of or looking for a military or veteran charity is to do your due diligence. Give to those you know, or those that are recommended to you by those who know.

It’s Election Season-It always astounds me that someone running for public office would dare lie or embellish their military service. There are three recent cases of note, the first of which I wrote about before.

Senator John Walsh (D)-MT, plagiarized his thesis at the US Army War College. The master’s degree he received, which has now been revoked, predicated his rise in rank to Colonel, his appointment as adjutant general of the Montana National Guard with commission as a Brigadier General, and election to Lt. Governor of that state, and finally appointment to fill the seat of retired Senator Max Baucus. It is good, right and just that his master’s degree was revoked. Let’s hope he is stripped of rank as well, with repayment of pay he received ordered and a corresponding reduction in any future pension.

Ron Dickey, a Congressional candidate for Mississippi’s 1st District is an embellisher. He has claimed service in Army Special Forces. The truth is, he was a cook for a special forces unit. He never entered much less completed the schools and courses necessary to become an elite special forces warrior. To be technical, he claims he was a ‘Green Beret’. During his time in service, everyone attached to a special forces unit got a beret that was green. Semantics, I guess.

Jim Foley (R)-NH claims to be a Marine, sports a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He has since admitted his lies and has ended his re-election campaign. In the vein of Stolen Valor being a victimless crime, I submit further proof of this one’s character. He was disbarred as a lawyer for financial shennigans before he began claiming he was a Marine.

There are countless other examples of politicians who embellish their service, when they don’t outright lie. I know, a politician lying is a big surprise. What is a surprise is how many have been elected on these false claims, yet to date, not a single one has been prosecuted. It would be hard, I guess, to prove their win resulted from their claims of Stolen Valor. But, there are other charges possible, particularly for those who wear or wore the specific medals listed in the SV law.

The single biggest reason for civilians to care about Stolen Valor is this –

Military service is an ancient and honorable tradition. In every country throughout history, those who are capable and willing to answer the call are few and far between. We call them the best of the best for a reason. We revere them, for their service and sacrifice. When we diminish the best of us, the least of us are lessened as well.

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    Denise Williams

    Views and opinions from the Gold Star, Military and Veteran perspective are generally different from those of the civilian world. Much of what I write is "their" stories, as told to me as the Gold Star Mother of PFC Andrew Meari, KIA 11/1/10 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. This is how I continue to honor the Oath my son took. I don't like labels or boxes as the former is insufficient to describe a person and the latter limits a person but if you insist, call me a Progressive Republican. I believe in this country, our Constitution and above all, in the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I believe our government is supposed to serve the people, not tell them how to live. To me, this is just common sense but since it seems to be a minority opinion, it has become "Uncommon Sense".

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