Why It's Criminal to Lie About Military Honors

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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.

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Presented by

Lindsay Windsor & Arthur Rizer

Lindsay Windsor is a defense consultant who specializes in national security law. Arthur Rizer, who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart serving in Iraq, works at the U.S. Department of Justice and trains military police for the U.S. Army Reserves. The views expressed by Rizer are entirely his own; he does not speak for the Department of Justice or the U.S. Army.

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