I feel like I have to get out in front of this thing before any wild rumors start surfacing about my time in uniform.
So here it is: It lasted eight years. I trained shoulder to shoulder with some of the finest people you’ll ever meet. To this day I get a lump in my throat whenever I see a parade.
Yep – marching band was tough.
Why, what did you think I was talking about?
However you want to couch my years of service, at least it was all real. All my band medals were earned honestly.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have stolen valor.
If you’re familiar with the term “stolen valor,” you’re likely aware of what a shameful problem it is. People across the country are shamefully, pathetically impersonating military combat veterans.
Sometimes it’s an actual veteran who’s never seen combat – a person with a perfectly honorable service record who feels a need to exaggerate. Sometimes it’s a guy who’s assembled his own uniform one piece at a time, then wears the uniform in public for the cheap thrill of being seen and possibly admired.
Other times the intent is much more dishonorable. Folks have been known either to lie or to completely fabricate military service records to coax disability benefits or VA loans out of government coffers and veteran charities – or, more accurately, out of unsuspecting citizens’ wallets.
HERE’S JUST one example: Jason Scaletta of Nanticoke, Pa., was sentenced last month to 10 years in prison for bilking veteran organizations out of thousands of dollars’ worth of free housing, free cell phone bills and financial stipends.
To get all that, Scaletta said he used to be an Army Ranger; received a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star; sustained a traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb; and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.
Turns out Scaletta fudged his record just a tad. He actually went through 44 days of basic training and never was actively deployed.
The federal Stolen Valor Act of 2013 criminalizes this fakery under certain circumstances. Some states have their own stolen valor laws. One was proposed in Georgia last year but didn’t pass.
Stolen valor burst briefly back into the news this month when the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that wearing a military medal you didn’t earn – I believe that’s called “lying” – is protected free speech. The court found that as long as you’re not tangibly committing fraud, reaping tangible benefits, you’re merely expressing yourself.
The First Amendment can be a bitter pill to swallow in the name of preserving America’s freedoms. Our freedom of speech includes the freedom to lie about ourselves.
That means if you want to wear a Purple Heart – the medal given to military members wounded or killed while defending their country – you can.
But it won’t make you a genuine Purple Heart recipient.
It will make you a callous numbskull. Or, if you already are a numbskull, it will efficiently send the message to others that you’re a numbskull.
THE INTERNET sends the message very well, too. Two websites – militaryphony.com and thisainthell.us – have kept tabs on hundreds and hundreds of these valor thieves, and you can see them in all their fake-uniformed glory. Though I’m no medical expert, I would caution actual veterans against looking at these sites if they’re under doctor’s orders to control their blood pressure.
The sites’ researchers are quite thorough. For example: You know the Oregon wildlife refuge that got taken over by Ammon Bundy and his “militia”? Several of its members were arrested last week. Sweet fancy Moses, where do I start?
• Brian Cavalier claimed to be a former Marine scout and sniper, with service in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the British Daily Mail newspaper did some checking. It seems the closest Cavalier has been to the Corps is probably watching reruns of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
• Blaine Cooper, while not arrested, also claimed to be a Marine vet. He signed up for the Marines under the Delayed Entry Program, but evidently never reported to boot camp.
• Ryan Payne claimed to be a former Army Ranger. Oh, he was in the Army, with two deployments to Iraq – just never a Ranger.
• Jon Ritzheimer actually was in the Marines. He served in Iraq honorably as a truck driver. He claims to have seen action in combat, yet doesn’t seem to have a Combat Action Ribbon.
It’s sad the way fake heroes insist on posing as something they’re not. Each of their lives seem to have this hole that apparently can’t be filled with community involvement or creative output or religious devotion or even a halfway-interesting hobby.
Stolen valor is a malignancy that insults every person who wore a uniform honorably.