Richard Strandlof lived a life of distinction. He spoke to children and the media as a survivor first of the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11 and then survived a roadside bomb that killed four fellow Marines. He will now add a further distinction as a defendant in a rare “stolen valor” prosecution after his claims of service were proven false.
Federal prosecutors have charged Strandlof, 32, with “for false claims about receipt of military decorations or medals” in Denver, Colorado — a crime punishable by one year incarceration and a $100,000 fine.
He later admitted on CNN that it was all a lie.
The Stolen Valor Act was only passed in 2005. The law actually distinguishes between the medals claimed. You can receive six months for “falsely represent[ing], verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States, or any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces, or the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration or medal, or any colorable imitation thereof.” However, you can receive a year “[i]f a decoration or medal involved in an offense under subsection (a) or (b) is a Distinguished Service Cross awarded under Section 3742 of title 10, an Air Force Cross awarded under section 8742 of section 10, a Navy cross awarded under section 6242 of title 10, a silver star awarded under section 3746, 6244, or 8746 of title 10, or a Purple Heart awarded under section 1129 of title 10, or any replacement or duplicate medal as authorized by statute. . .”
The crime of stolen valor is a bit of a curiosity. There is no question that you can be prosecuted for lying to obtain benefits or property in the form of fraud, conspiracy and other crimes. Such cases usually have conventional false statements or fraud elements linked to the claim of service, as here and here and here.
However, what about just talking big about your past in the military? From pick-up bars to fishing shacks, men have been known to exaggerate and outright lie about their pasts. However, if you include military honors, it can be a crime, as in this case. I must admit to be a bit troubled by the line drawn here. We have had high-ranking officials who have been found to have lied about the details of their service — wearing unearned ribbons or medals. Even Gen. Petraeus has been accused of medal improprieties, here. We have even seen people who make up stories like Strandlof but are not charged. These cases can produce a disturbing level of arbitrary enforcement and vagueness as to when it is a crime and when it is a tall tale.
Members of Congress have been challenged on exaggerating their military career, here.
There is obviously little sympathy with these people. However, it does present some intriguing questions when the claims are not used to secure benefits or money. Can you really steal “valor” in the same sense of property? The law actually distinguishes between medals like theft and grand theft. In other areas, people cannot be charged for simply claiming to have cancer or inspiring lives if they do not use the false claims to extract money. Here you have people extracting fame but not necessarily property. Is it still theft? What do you think?
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