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  • The Stolen Valor Pandemic
  • Author avatar
    Jared Zabaldo

The Stolen Valor Pandemic

Sometime in 2004, I read the book Stolen Valor written by B.G. Burkett, a former U.S. Army officer who served in Vietnam. Burkett’s book made me unbelievably cynical and there are times I wish I had never read it because as they say, ignorance is bliss. Burkett’s exceptional piece of investigative work created doubt in my mind towards anyone who claims to be a veteran, but fortunately over the years, I have been able to compartmentalize my emotions and the urge to automatically look at everyone with suspicion.

Burkett’s book is a deep dive into stolen valor. What is stolen valor? The definition of stolen valor is when a person claims they have served in the military, or they embellish their rank or fraudulently claim that they were presented an award for valor. In order for actions to qualify as illicit, a person must have the intent to gain money, property or some other tangible benefit by convincing others that he or she received the award.

The act of embellishing military service in the United States dates back to the Continental Army when George Washington stated that if anyone falsely claimed to have earned the nation’s first award, what would become the Purple Heart, that they should be severely punished. Little did he know what a national tragedy stolen valor would become. Decades later, nearly 75 percent of the pensioned surviving veterans claiming to be combat veterans of the Civil War had never served in the military or in combat. Stolen Valor cases are nothing new and there is no book on how to spot stolen valor.

Over the decades, fakers, posers, glory hounds, dirt bags, whatever you choose to call them have sometimes been prosecuted and convicted of lying about their veteran status. Not until 2005 did the U.S. government choose to aggressively do something about it.

President George W. Bush signed the original Stolen Valor Act in 2005. That made it illegal to lie about military service and medals, but the U.S. Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional in that it violated free speech so a revision was drafted and it was signed into law in 2013 by President Barack Obama. What is the penalty for stolen valor? Depends, but up to one year in prison. It is a federal offense and those convicted of violating stolen valor laws can also face fines and civil cases can be brought against them for financial damages if it is proven that they benefitted fiscally. The Stolen Valor Act attempted to prohibit financial gain.

Given all that is going in the world today with the coronavirus you might think that something like stolen valor isn’t really on the minds of most people, but right now some sociopath is making a plan to tell people how he helped save patients in New York City, or some insecure loser is laying the ground work for a fabrication that will make her a heroine to her friends and family. A crisis is stolen valor’s fertile ground and it is honest veterans that tend to that garden, pulling the weeds as they find them.

In recent weeks I’ve seen remarks from veterans on social media and in veterans’ forums about stolen valor and how the COVID-19 military response will bring a fresh batch of liars. So, the sentinels are ready, standing watch, waiting. But how does a person report stolen valor? And honestly, is it really that important to report? The answer depends on who you talk to. For most veterans, the answer is usually, yes, it is important enough to report.

As a veteran, you can help control stolen valor by reporting your suspicions to local investigative reporters or by working with non-profit groups that focus on stolen valor. My advice is, if you’re not experienced in this sort of thing, leave it up to professionals. Remember, just because someone is wearing something or making some bold claims does not make them a criminal.

I know that many of you can argue, as did Burkett in his book, that fakers aren’t just stealing tangible things from veterans, they are stealing intangibles like honor and valor. I agree. 

If the guy at church who has the Ranger stickers all over his pickup truck isn’t really a Ranger based on conversations you’ve had with him, think about whether his fibs are helping him gain a financial foothold or is he just getting cool guy points from admiring suburban dads who don’t know better. Is the veteran with “many combat deployments” who is a fixture at Veterans’ Day events really hurting anyone when he talks about his war duty when you know his tours of duty were in Kuwait and Qatar? Legally those are considered to be in the “combat zone” but when was the last time you heard of anyone dying from combat in those two countries? My point is, pick your battles. If we point enough fingers and whine enough, pretty soon our efficacy as a group comes into question.

Is stolen valor a crime? You bet. The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 makes it a crime to wear things you’ve not earned and benefit from it, but it is legal to wear things you have not earned and make false or misrepresenting statements. Clear as mud, right? Unfortunately, caught in the gray area are military members and veterans.

I think USAMM does a really good job ensuring that veterans get what they deserve. As a veteran, I know what it is like to actually earn something, so I have a vested interest in ensuring that posers don't get the opportunity to misrepresent themselves. USAMM is a veteran-owned business, and I'm a veteran of the Iraq War, so I’ve got a deep, personal interest to protect my fellow veterans from stolen valor. And I have a responsibility to the men and women who have served honorably.

The USAMM awards team is comprised of military veterans who are seasoned professionals in military awards. Usually, 99 percent of our orders are from active military personnel who are preparing for a promotion board or official photo and they want to look sharp. I feel good that we provide a service to military personnel and in more than 15 years of serving our military we have had just a handful of cases where someone tried to lie and purchase something that we viewed as suspicious. When that happened, we asked for a DD Form 214, and there was no response, so the order wasn’t processed.

Who is responsible for policing stolen valor? If the federal government can be duped for millions of dollars in Veterans Affairs benefits, sometimes by people who have never served, how can companies and other organizations protect themselves against fraudsters? Even if organizations ask for documentation, what good is it if a faker can create an impeccable DD Form 214 and fraudulently get disability, educational, and loan benefits from an organization like the VA? How can anyone possibly become a 214 specialist?

The truth is nobody can prevent people from committing stolen valor. There are laws that cover everything in this country from driving to fishing and people still do what they want. That’s the price you pay for living in a society that has a lot of rights. There is always a small percentage of people who will do what is wrong. That’s why we have to do what is right.

How do you identify stolen valor? Usually, it is pretty easy to see and as veterans you will know it when you see it. You know what I mean, veterans. It is the same thing as spotting your kind in a crowd. How many times have you seen someone and thought, I bet that one served?

How to report stolen valor is really the issue that faces most veterans. The best thing to do is report the faker, but do not get confrontational and do not violate their rights or privacy. Instead, try to capture him or her in uniform either by photo or video and then turn that over to the proper authorities, a news agency or to nonprofits that specialize in investigating people who are military frauds. If you think someone is defrauding the VA, you can report them to the VA inspector general hotline. You can also drop me a line by commenting on this blog.

Remember, while it is frustrating to watch someone lie for attention, it is not a crime. Stolen valor is incurable. It is a timeless pandemic. As veterans, we need to work together to ensure we pull the weeds from our sacred ground. 

  • Author avatar
    Jared Zabaldo