Why It’s Criminal to Lie About Military Honors

  From the Atlantic  By: LINDSAY WINDSOR & ARTHUR RIZER 


As the Supreme Court decides whether to uphold the Stolen Valor Act, the public should note the damage that fraudulent veterans have already done.

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Rick Duncan was a politician’s dream. A former Marine Corps Captain and a graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, he was awarded the Purple Heart due to combat injuries he sustained from an IED while serving on one of his three tours in Iraq. Mr. Duncan, with his unassailable credentials, served as the perfect mouthpiece for anti-Iraq War candidates during the 2008 elections. He took center stage and spoke with authority about the failed Bush policies in Iraq, commanding attention from politicians, reporters, and even other veterans. For almost two years, Duncan continued to be a fierce anti-war advocate, creating the Colorado Veterans Alliance and speaking at length about the plight of his brethren.

But there was a problem with Rick Duncan. He did not actually earn the Purple Heart, go to Annapolis, or serve even one tour of duty. In fact, he had never served one day in the military. His name was not even Rick Duncan; rather, it was Rick Strandlof and he was a total fraud. For his lies, Strandlof was convicted of violating the Stolen Valor Act.

Rewards for some of these fraudulent lies may be as simple as an undeserved free drink, but others have been extremely costly.

This Act, as codified in Title 18, Section 704 of the United States Code, makes it a crime to lie about having received a military award such as the Purple Heart or the Medal of Honor. The law has its origins in history dating back to the Founding Fathers, but it is now being challenged before the Supreme Court on the grounds that it infringes upon free speech rights. Strandlof’s was one of the first cases to be overturned by a Denver federal judge, on the grounds that the statute was “facially unconstitutional” as a violation of the First Amendment.

This law, though, does not restrict the free speech protected by the First Amendment, because lies are inherently fraudulent. Fraud, alongside obscenity and incitement, is among the categories of speech recognized by the Supreme Court whose “prevention and punishment . . . have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem.” A statute that punishes fraud therefore comports with First Amendment freedoms. As the name of the Act implies, every lie about a military honor defrauds true heroes and American society, polluting the very meaning of heroism and causing harms that Congress can constitutionally criminalize.

Restrictions on who can claim to be a recipient of military honors date back to George Washington, who created the first American military award, the Purple Heart, during the Revolutionary War. Then General Washington immediately established the first ban on the unauthorized wearing of such awards by ordering, “Should any who are not entitled to the honors, have the insolence to assume the badges of them, they shall be severely punished.”

Before the current Stolen Valor Act was passed by Congress in 2006, a long-standing statute codifying Washington’s order prohibited wearing military service medals or military uniforms without authority. Four decades ago, the Supreme Court in Schacht v. United States declared this to be valid law, writing that “making it an offense to wear our military uniforms without authority is, standing alone, a valid statute on its face.”

Recent trends in society have clouded the situation somewhat. Two weeks before the Stolen Valor Act was introduced to Congress, the hit comedy Wedding Crashers was released in the United States. It featured Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn lying about being Purple Heart recipients to get free drinks and to pick up women. The movie’s official website offered a printable Purple Heart advertised as a gimmick so moviegoers could do the same. The website advertised, “To get one of these babies, some dudes have to prove their physical, mental and spiritual strength with great feats of bravery on the battlefield. All you need to do is press the button below.”

The current challenge to the Stolen Valor Act presumes that the characters in the Wedding Crashers, while they may be despicable, are not criminals. Such opponents of the Act argue, if a guy gets a free drink at a bar or a little extra sympathy by claiming an award, what’s the problem? Even the Supreme Court pondered this question in oral argument about the Stolen Valor Act. Justice Sotomayor compared it to a boyfriend who lies to her on a date, asking, “Outside of the emotional reaction, where’s the harm?”

The issue is that these are not few or isolated events, and each one defrauds. According to Congressional records, prior to the enactment of this statute, more than twice as many people claimed to have received the Medal of Honor as had actually received it. In the 18 months after the statute was enacted, the Chicago Tribune estimated there were 20 prosecutions under the Act. According to the Washington Post, the FBI investigated 200 stolen valor cases in 2009 and typically receives about 50 tips a month. According to Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion (who filed briefs supporting the Stolen Valor Act in this case), imposters have included a United States Attorney, Member of Congress, Ambassador, Judge, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and bestselling author, manager of a Major League Baseball team, Navy Captain, police chief, top executive at a world-famous research laboratory, director of state veterans’ programs, university administrator, pastor, candidate for countywide office, mayor, physician, and more than one police officer.

Rewards for some of these fraudulent lies may be as simple as an undeserved free drink, but others have been extremely costly. Perhaps the most egregious example is a Marine Sergeant who used false claims of Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, and Air Medals to secure $66 million in security contracts from the military. When the military learned of the man’s fraudulent combat record, they revoked the contracts, but he had already fled the country.

In another instance, 12 men defrauded the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs out of more than $1.4 million in veteran’s benefits by alleging military medals they had never received. In 2003, 642 people claimed exemption from Virginia state taxes for having received the Medal of Honor; however, at the time, there were only four living recipients in the whole state. Others have used their lies to publicize books, get VIP tickets to rock concerts, and obtain free hunting and fishing licenses.

Additionally, imposters rewrite history because they are given unique access to the media on account of their claimed awards. They distort historical accounts of military events by providing fictitious “memories” that have been reported in newspapers, magazines, memoirs, and documentaries. Along with Rick Strandlof, for instance, Jesse Macbeth fraudulently used his claim of being a Purple Heart recipient to lend credibility to his fabricated stories about mass murders and other war crimes he purportedly witnessed American troops committing during the liberation of Iraq. Even the Library of Congress was deceived: In a project concerning veterans’ oral histories, it found 25 of the 49 Medal of Honor recipients it identified, as well as 32 Distinguished Service Cross recipients and 14 Navy Cross recipients, had lied about having been awarded those honors.

The third aspect of these lies’ harm involves stealing honor and respect from true recipients of the military awards. Recipients of these awards are recognized for a character of selflessness, bravery, and heroism, whereas imposters brag about credentials they have never earned. This denigrates society’s overall impression of medal recipients and increases skepticism about those who have rightfully received these awards.

Moreover, protecting the integrity of military awards has been long seen as an important aspect in maintaining a motivated military. As Napoleon Bonaparte recognized, “A solider will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Our soldiers are not driven by medals, but this recognition of their bravery and excellence is a kind of code — a “language” that lets others know that an individual has reached a level of performance and patriotism, and that he or she deserves the respect of peers.

In one such case of stolen valor, David Weber, a 69-year-old veteran of the Marine Corps, falsely claimed to be a two-star Major General at a Marine Corps birthday celebration near San Diego, California. Mr. Weber said he had been awarded a Purple Heart, along with other medals that he did not earn. Because of his status as a wounded warrior and senior officer, Mr. Weber was offered the first slice of birthday cake. At the same celebration was a veteran who had fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II, a battle that ended with over 7,000 dead Americans and 31,000 dead Japanese. While it is true that the monetary value of the first slice of cake may be infinitesimal, the honor he stole from the other veterans is priceless. Recognition of the Guadalcanal veteran was muffled by the attention-grabbing antics of Weber.

Finally, those who lie about receiving an undeserved military honor swindle unearned sympathy and respect from the American people. The Supreme Court recently recognized the significance of this unquantifiable sentiment in Porter v. McCollum, where it held that a defendant’s military decorations were so important to a jury’s verdict that the failure of his attorney to bring the awards to the jury’s attention constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. In the Court’s words, “Our Nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines.” Unearned credibility in the community was one of the harms Congress explicitly contemplated in this statute. When imposters claim this status, they steal leniency, credibility, respect, and sympathy from the American public.

In the case of Rick Strandlof (aka Rick Duncan), the New York Times reported that his ability to “fool so many people for so long says much about the power of veterans in Colorado, a swing state with numerous military bases.” People do not want to question a warrior’s story. Indeed, Mr. Strandlof reported that he lost a finger in Iraq when it was blatantly apparent he had all ten digits. Even with this obvious discrepancy, his copious lies went on for months. He specifically used the respect for veterans to campaign for Jared Polis, who won a seat in the House of Representatives, and for Mark Udall, who won a seat in the Senate.

It is true that it is difficult to determine the actual harm done in each stolen valor case, but it not hard to see that each case harms someone or something. When Congress spoke of how “imposters . . . cheapen the value of these honors,” it didn’t mean that the Medal of Honor becomes worth less in dollar value on the black market. They meant that there is a cost to each military hero and to the American people for each of these lies, even when the only quantifiable profit comes in the form of a slice of cake.

For these reasons, the Act was passed in 2006 by an overwhelming majority in Congress, and should be upheld by the Supreme Court. Because someone who falsely claims these honors cheats his audience, dilutes the positive perception of the honors, and benefits in tangible ways from his fraud, these lies are not and should not be protected by the Constitution.

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