Stolen Valor is Offensive, But Is It A Crime?

We have been following a number of “stolen valor” cases recently on this blog. The crime of falsely claiming medals and military service is all the rage. Even journalists have been implicated as with Darrow “Duke” Tully, publisher of Arizona Republic and close associate to Sen. John McCain. Tully resigned as publisher after it was learned that he did not fly 100 combat missions over Vietnam, crash a fighter in Korea, or receive the Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry. Indeed, he never served at all. Below is today’s column on the subject (which was the subject of this segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

Across the country, police are rounding up a growing class of felons: valor thieves. With two wars, valor has become a valuable commodity for individuals who want to skip enlistment and combat and go directly to the hero adoration stage. Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, it is a federal crime to claim unearned military decorations or medals. While widely popular, these prosecutions raise constitutional questions of free speech. From judges to admirals to bank employees, citizens are facing accusations of felonious bravado.

When President Bush signed the act into law, he was probably thinking of people such as Steve Burton. Burton, of Palm Springs, Calif., appeared at his high school reunion in 2009 in the uniform of a Marine lieutenant colonel supporting enough medals to make a Soviet general blush. Unfortunately for him, he ran into a former classmate who is a real Navy commander, and she reported the possible fraudulent medals, including a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and the Navy Cross. His claim to have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq also drew suspicion.

Burton actually works in a bank. He is one of many people who struggle to reinvent themselves in a more heroic image with the help of Internet sites selling uniforms, medals and ribbons. They are the modern-day Walter Mittys — bank tellers and office workers who want to snatch notoriety from the jaws of mediocracy.

From 2005 to 2009, federal prosecutors charged 48 people under the Stolen Valor Act.

Ironically, it is often the irresistible impulse to add medals and heroic accounts that prove the undoing of the faux warriors. Last month, Michael Patrick McManus was arrested after a veteran spotted him at the December party for Houston Mayor-elect Annise Parker. McManus was wearing an Army uniform supporting a virtually solid front of decorations, from parachute wings to the Purple Heart to two distinguished service crosses and other decorations. Most notable was a medal around his neck that appeared to make him a Commander of the British Empire.

Notable ‘insolence’

McManus might have found a sympathetic judge in Michael F. O’Brien. The Illinois circuit judge claimed not one but two medals of honor — with a display in chambers for visitors. It was only after he applied for Medal of Honor license plates in 1992 that he was eventually uncovered and forced to resign from the bench or face prosecution.

Some imposters served but gave themselves post-service promotions. David Weber was a Marine staff sergeant but later promoted himself by adopting the uniform of a retired two-star major general with two Purple Hearts. He pleaded guilty in January in San Diego.

George Washington himself created the forerunner of the Purple Heart for those who have “given of his blood in the defense of his homeland” and declared that “should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them, they shall be severely punished.”

While most people, no doubt, share the anger and disgust with people claiming such honors, the question is where to draw the line between free speech and criminal conduct. Citizens have a right to burn an American flag as a form of protected speech. However, if they do so while wearing a single falsely claimed medal, they can be prosecuted. If Congress can criminalize such claims, it could make half of the pick-up lines used in bars across the country crimes. It could theoretically criminalize other false claims from architects to accountants to anthropologists.

Where to draw the line

Moreover, if Congress can criminalize the wearing of false medals, it could theoretically criminalize claims of military service or the use of military symbols under the same authority.

Craig Missakian, a California prosecutor, insists that Congress can ensure prosecution of such cases under the Constitution’s grant of authority to raise and support an army, and that includes, by extension, “protecting the worth and value of these medals.”Yet, such an interpretation would defy any meaningful limits on Congress’ ability to criminalize acts. In the past, a useful line has been drawn between simple acts of false bravado and false statements used to secure financial gain. The latter cases are routinely prosecuted as simple fraud. The Stolen Valor Act is obviously intended for other cases, where people wear medals for their simple adoration and public acclaim.

In pending cases, two men are challenging the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act. Water-district board member Xavier Alvarez of Pomona, Calif., made the mistake of claiming to be a retired Marine and recipient of the Medal of Honor during a public meeting in 2007. Rick Glen Strandlof claimed before his arrest in 2009 in Colorado to be a wounded Marine veteran who received a Purple Heart and Silver Star. Such “semper frauds” enrage actual Marines who take well-earned pride in the corps and its traditions.

We can all agree that false claims of military honors are repugnant and worthy of social condemnation. These men deserve to be social pariahs, but there remains a serious question over whether they deserve to be criminal defendants. We should spend our time and resources on creating easily accessible resources to uncover false claims. We also need to remember that, in the end, true valor cannot be stolen. It can only be earned. What is left are pathetic pretenders who should not add constitutional injury to social insult.

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.

26 thoughts on “Stolen Valor is Offensive, But Is It A Crime?”

  1. What strikes me about many of these cases is the ridiculous over-reach — McManus with his CBE (and CIA badge, to boot!), the judge with TWO Medals of Honor — but then I realized, these are probably just the guys who actually get caught, specifically because they set off alarm bells. The person you meet casually who simply claims to have served in Iraq, say, or to have a Purple Heart (not uncommon) never really gets challenged.

  2. We can’t have it both ways. Once upon a time personal responsibility and social morays limited this garbage but today everything is permissable. It was unnecessary to chase around these pathetic fools in the past because stealing valor was not a joke, it meant something and people knew it. Today the country thrives on relative morals and situational ethics and whatever works for one is “okay by me”. We need these laws because society has abdicated its collective responsibility to put limits on poor behavior. Poor social ethics breed laws.

    We don’t protect valor for the soldier who earned it. He knows why he got it. We protect it because America feels very strongly on the sacrifice of valorous service and no one gets to cheapen it without a price.

  3. I am a Vietnam war veteran. I think that people who impersonate a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine should be punished. I would recommend a stiff fine for the first offense. Ditto for someone who impersonates a veteran. Anyone who attempts to get something of value by falsely claiming military service should also be charged with fraud and fined / given jail time to fit the level of the crime. Our country has seen a nosedive in personal responsibility and accountability. G.W. Bush was AWOL in Alabama, but never held accountable. He got into the Texas ANG illegally! Daddy made the call. G.W. only scored 25 out of 100 on the Pilot Aptitude Test. He also never completed his 6 years—Daddy got him out early. Cheney recently bragged about authorizing waterboarding—torture—in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Then, he publicly stated he’d do it again! AGAIN, I ASK, WHERE IS THE ACCOUNTABILITY? Bush & Cheney should have been impeached for lying our country into a war with a country that did not attack us.

  4. Decorated veteran here. I think the so-called “Stolen Valor” Act is a remarkably un-American law.

    The law reminds me of that infamous North Korean edict which prohibits destroying any piece of paper bearing the Great Leader’s likeness. It is the government criminalizing the disrespect of a mere symbol.

    No service member ever went into combat to defend a medal. No, they served to defend FREEDOM. The idea that, in America, we have freedom of expression that isn’t limited by some officious busybody’s idea of what is or isn’t “sufficiently respectful”.

    Every country has soldiers. Every country has medals. They’re not what makes America special. Freedom is what makes us special.

  5. Well I tell ya, I almost got sick, when Bush got out of a fighter jet and pranced across a carrier deck, like that draft dodger was ever in a war!!

    Then to add to the irony of the situation, he takes the National Guard, which he joined to GET OUT OF THE WAR, and makes them do tour after tour! Now THAT takes guts!

    BTW I am also pissed at the people that ran to Canada to get out of the war, and then they let them back in!
    If they didn’t want to fight, I have no problem with them leaving, BUT DON’T COME BACK!

    You made your choice, live with it.

  6. I concede expertise to Doug Sterner on this issue as he was probably the main advocate of the Stolen Valor legislation. I think he raises a valid point that in almost every case people who unlawfully wear the uniform or claim the medals do so for some fraudulent purpose. The Constitutionality only comes into question, I think, if someone were to wear the medals or a ribbon rack in an attempt to make a political point — e.g. throwing medals you never earned over the White House fence. [I am not saying that John Kerry did not earn his Silver Star — I’m only using his idea as a jumping point for a political protest.] Would it be similarly fraudulent to wear un undeserved Medal of Honor at an anti-war rally, a la Forrest Gump? The purpose there arguably would not be to use fraudulent status to gain something of monetary value, but to score political points.

  7. I am a Disabled American Veteran, (Hospital Corpsman-combat medic with the USMC) I have caught guys lying about serving in combat for 40 years, when this happens I try to insult, and humiliate them to no end. I feel if they have to try to impress people with their war stories, then I have to remind them that they are fakes looking for some attention. I feel I owe that to the soldiers I tended to in the jungles of So. Viet Nam, some I saved some weren’t so lucky, but I have absolutely no time for the fakes who discourage themselves by these actions they lower their personal standards to. (PERSONAL FRAUD is a disgrace, its disgusting, dishonest and shows no honor to the many that have served this country to the best of their ability) I guess they will be rewarded when they meet their maker!)

    An ANGRY VETERAN, who proudly served our country !

  8. Mr Turley should clearly check his credentials: stolen valor is indeed a crime as clearly indicated by the existence of federal statutes which not only outline the prohibition of such but which also clearly call for minimum sentencing in certain extenuating circumstances.

    As Al Gore and many liberal pundits of lore would say: “The debate is over.” However, in this case, it is clearly publicly accepted law, nationwide, and will be further confirmed [settled] as such in the first, if ever dared, Supreme Court consideration.

  9. Fraud and forgery are crimes and should be crimes. Lying by itself should not. I just don’t think we should be spending police resources to round up people for making stuff up. If they swindle someone using what amounts to be false credentials, then clearly that is a crime. If a guy at a bar is making up war stories making himself feel cool, while I find it disgusting and horrendous, I do not necessarily want the police to show up and arrest him.

  10. As an afterthought: Dr. Turley references the case above of “dress-up hero” McManus in Houston. What has NOT been reported and is little known, is that in 2002 this same individual was charged with impersonating an Air Marshall and working his way into the cockpit of a commercial airliner, and also with impersonating an Army Major. He received two years probation…a slap on the wrist quite in keeping with what we see in most Stolen Valor Cases. Obviously the sentence was not sufficient to teach him a lesson about impersonation.

    In fact, in the first case charged in California (Michael Allen Fraser), the subject was sentenced to probation and community service. Nearly a year later he was in trouble again…it appears the letter on “VFW Stationary” detailing completion of his community service was FORGED!

  11. A legal term that SHOULD be identified with the Stolen Valor issue is “Position of Trust.” In almost every case I deal with (and I get a dozen a week) there is associated fraud. Robert Kleasen (“The REal Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) when released from prison on a technicality, moved to England where he hid behind the respectability and respect of the Medal of Honor and Air Force Cross, wearing and using these awards to earn people’s trust and take advantage of vulnerable citizens.

    I could detail many more such cases. Often the fraud is NOT chargeable in a court of law, but it is REAL…bogus heroes using that status to impress vulnerable people and then defraud them of thousands of dollars. The below email from my own case file illustrates this:

    “Mr. Hammer claims to be a former Navy Seal who won the Medal of Honor for being shot twice in Vietnam. I am a VA employee at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, Bay Pines. Mr. Hammer was a patient and a CWT worker at this hospital when I met him. I was widowed 3/3/01, and Mr. Hammer knew about the time I spent taking care of my husband before he died. Mr. Hammer conned myself and many people here at the VA by claiming Navy Seal status and Medal of Honor receipient (sic). He used a fraudulent (sic) DD-214 to gain employment and care. He moved in with me 4/02 and convinced me that he was an excellant (sic) craftsman and would have a very successful business restoring period furniture (he claimed to have had a business (Sawtooth Woodworking) in Savannah, Ga. and was very successful until a woman ruined his business. Mr. Hammer took me for over $45,000. in tools and a truck, money and jewelery (sic) of my late husbands (sic). He took off on Aug. 16th, 2002. I have since had contact with a Susin Tyler-Mitchel in Savannah who told me he did exactly the same thing to her! He also did this to a woman in S. Carolina named Krissy (I have no last name) who had him arrested for domestic violence. He has an outstanding warrant (sic) in S.Carolin (sic) for Probation violation. Ms. Tyler- Mitchel said I was fortunate as she was beaten and chocked (sic) by this man before he left her. This man is a danger to society and especially to women, I am afraid some one will be killed by him, if it has not been done already. He told myself and many people here at the VA that he was trained to KILL in the SEALS and has already killed one man that had molested his daughter, Mr. Hammer has no children and has never been married according to his Father in Billings Montana(I found his dad on the internet and called him). This man is a preditor (sic) of women with his cunning actions and intelligence. I want to see this man exposed before any more women are taken in by him. Thank you.”

    These individuals are experts at fraud, know how to find and USE vulnerable people, and then take advantage of them. Mike Hammer, the man in the above case, was never charged with anything as this was a pre-STolen Valor Act Case. I have many more like him in my files. And these are the phony heroes I target.

  12. One possible solution is to pass a law stating that a person who wears a military uniform, claims to have been awarded military decorations for valor, and otherwise acts to make others believe that he is or was a member of the US military is subject to military discipline under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 USC 801 et seq.

    Should not such a person’s conduct be judged by a jury of his wannabe “peers”?

  13. I guess bragging rights are left only to the people in politics. Everyone else must adhere to the truth.

  14. I do have a problem with the free speech implications, but a line does have to be found to protect the fallen who have actually served and these imposters who are actually identity thieves. Some of them do use the fake medals and the fake honors on their resumes and to promote themselves. I don’t know if they should be felons, but misdemeanor charges with serious community service in VA hospitals could be helpful to the liers and to the vets.

  15. Perhaps it is time to bring back the stocks. Most towns have memorials for real war veterans. Position the stocks close by so kids can see the difference. Rotten eggs, optional.

  16. I totally agree with you john454, but a consequence should be dealt out to the offender. If not incarceration than perhaps a fine with public disclosure of the conviction.

  17. I know people that have done this.

    Unfortunately for them, their charade doesn’t last long, but the embarrassment DOES last a LONG time!

    They seem to forget the old saying you can’t fool ALL the people ALL the time.

    As for arresting people for it, we already have the highest incarceration rate in the WORLD!
    Do we really need to make more laws to make more criminals, when states are going broke trying to keep them all in prison? And then trying to find ways to let them out early…what would be the point?

  18. “Stolen valor” issues is offensive and is a crime imo. Not sure of the actual legal context of the potential charge, but it happens on a near-daily basis with the television media personalities to the point that they have documented an excessive following of un-informed followers that do not possess an adequate level of knowledge on issues they are so uninformed on that those people actually begin to believe the garbage spewed out from those television hosts seeking their own valor. And, that is a crime and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent since the actual victims cannot help themselves and are fear mongers towards any issue of educating themselves. It has already cost the lives of non-convicted victims already. How many more need to lose their life before people stand up against these crimes?

Comments are closed.