The first war hero I never met was W.H.
That’s not some code to keep him anonymous. Everybody just called him W.H., at another newspaper I worked at. He was this middle-aged, weatherbeaten pressman, and when he wasn’t helping print our paper, he would sometimes hang around the newsroom or the production department, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and tell stories about how he completed this mission or earned that medal while he was in the Army during World War II.
Or was it the Korean War? Sometimes even W.H. couldn’t keep it straight. He might have even mentioned Vietnam.
None of it was true, of course. If he had been hit as often as he said he had been, he would’ve carried so much shrapnel he’d have sounded like a tambourine when he walked.
But none of us ever called him out on it. Sure, he was lying about being a war hero, but we all figured it was harmless.
With other folks, it’s a different story.
These days it’s a phenomenon with a name – “stolen valor.” It’s when someone intentionally lies about his military service record to extract some sort of gain or advantage.
How often do these guys crop up? Too often.
Earlier this month, an Iowa man named Jeffrey Kepler was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for health-care fraud. To get health benefits, he told the Des Moines VA that he had served in the Army between January 1977 and August 1979 and received several medals for valor, including a Silver Star and Purple Heart.
When he tried for disability benefits, he got caught. Turns out, prosecutors said, Kepler served only 27 days in the Army in 1986 before being discharged as medically unfit.
Danny Crane got a year and a day in prison earlier this month, too. He served just three non-combat months in the Army. But he bilked the VA out of $7,000 by claiming partial blindness, a back injury from a gunshot wound and an injured face repaired by 24 metal plates.
And Crane would dress the part. “In public,” NBC reported, “he routinely wore two Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal – none of them earned.”
Last year, the director of counseling at a nonprofit group for veterans in Houston resigned his position after admitting to lying about his Army record. He was in the Army, all right. He just wasn’t a Special Forces sergeant first class with a Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
And on and on. Mary Schantag, a Marine Corps widow, started the Fake Warrior Project in 1998 to ferret out military fakers. This is how she describes the epidemic: “We had 22 phonies in 1998. I can get 22 in 48 hours right now. It’s all day, every day.”
As you can imagine, real heroes have a problem with this. I double-checked, since I have the pleasure of having a real hero on speed dial – retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith. He logged 370 combat hours in an F-4D supersonic jet during the Vietnam War, and though he hasn’t won the nation’s top military honor himself, he’s secretary of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
Yes, some valor thieves even have the gall to claim to have received the Medal of Honor. So what do real Medal of Honor recipients think?
“There’s a range of views, but the general view is it shouldn’t be done,” Smith said. “Some are outraged that anybody would do something like this. Others don’t see it as any kind of a big deal.”
Smith said some Medal of Honor winners think, “‘You just can’t totally control crazy people and it doesn’t diminish my medal or me that someone else’s is on the street.’ I don’t agree with that, but I’ve heard that view from a couple of people.”
Smith – and undoubtedly a supermajority of Americans – think there needs to be a law punishing anyone falsely claiming to have received a military honor. And there was – the Stolen Valor Act – until the Supreme Court struck it down last summer in a case seen by some as a stand protecting free speech. And by “free speech,” I mean “lying with pants fully ablaze.”
The case was United States v. Alvarez, involving Xavier Alvarez, a member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District Board in Pomona, Calif. He introduced himself to the board in 2007 by publicly stating he was a 25-year Marine veteran, that he was wounded several times and that he is a Medal of Honor recipient. That’s “no” on all three counts, and he was charged under the Stolen Valor Act.
But a Supreme Court majority ruled that Alvarez’s lies were protected speech under the First Amendment. It’s “a sin to tell a lie,” as the old Ink Spots song goes, but it’s perfectly legal.
Imperfectly legal, if you ask me.
A lot of people want to see the Stolen Valor Act reinstituted. So whom do you turn to when you want to battle a fake Marine?
A real Marine.
Jay Town served as a Marine major. Now he’s an assistant D.A. with the Madison County District Attorney’s Office in Huntsville, Ala., and chairs the Executive Council of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. With the help of Kevin Ainsworth – also a Marine, also an attorney and the foundation’s general counsel – Town drafted new legislation that’s making its way through Congress right now.
“Obviously the language was bound to change or be altered slightly as it went through various House and Senate committees, but the primary change or new component of the law was that it added the prong ‘for personal gain,’ ” Town explained. “So in essence, someone who (1) lies about receiving one of a few decorations for valor or service, such as the (Medal of Honor) and (2) does so with intent to realize some personal gain – anything from a free dinner to public notoriety to money for a speech – would be guilty of violating the new Stolen Valor Act.”
That would nail the lowlifes who try to, say, wheedle health benefits out of the government, but would protect harmless guys like my friend W.H.
“I believe there is a strong likelihood that even this Congress will see to it that our nation’s heroes, and the high honors they adorn, are given the protections they deserve,” Town said. “It’s the absolute least we can do for them as a nation.”