Medal of Dishonor: Taking a Look at America’s Stolen Valor Epidemic

He’d been a Navy SEAL, he announced in a solemn tone, and if I’d seen half what he had, he assured me, I’d never again sleep at night. And then, he proceeded to fill me in on every gory detail. Bits and pieces were disturbingly familiar, not due to their horror, but literally familiar. I’d heard this somewhere before. Instead of immediately calling him on it, I listened, and began to dig. The photographs on his Facebook page were legit, although certain features, including his name tape, were curiously blurred. Even so, it was only a matter of time before the man shown in the pictures was identified. He was, indeed, a SEAL. And he’d been killed in combat nearly a year prior.

Stolen Valor ActAs a military journalist, the frequency with which I am faced with supposed SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, and snipers who appear out of nowhere for interviews has rapidly increased in recent years. It was on May 3, 2011, VP Joe Biden opened his mouth and divulged information about SEAL Team 6 that never should have reached the light of day. And it wasn’t just Biden who felt free to chat about these men who have operated in the shadows for decades, both out of necessity and desire. Multiple reports point to President Barack Obama as the one who gave the name of a SEAL Team 6 operator and commander to Hollywood filmmakers interested in the bin Laden raid. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we know the DoD requested the director and screenwriter not mention the SEAL’s name, a flimsy request, to say the least. The number of men claiming SEAL status has taken an astonishing leap as the general public begins to realize the strength and valor of these usually silent warriors even as targets are painted on their backs by our government.

Some men use claims of Special Forces status in bars to garner female attention, and some take it farther, setting up Facebook pages and websites, claiming to have seen brutal combat and possess numerous medals. As the stolen valor epidemic grows, so does the audacity of the imposters claims. Impersonating deceased heroes should grant the culprit their own special circle of hell, and yet, it has happened more than a few times. Reporting the incidents usually does not result in any sort of disciplinary punishment whatsoever, let alone legal charges. So what is being done about stolen valor?

On December 20, 2006, then-President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 into law. The act deepened previous punishments for the falsifying of information regarding and unauthorized wear, manufacture, or sale of military medals and decorations. President Bush backed the law adamantly, and with the stroke of his pen, it became a felony misdemeanor to even say you had received a medal when you had not, punishable by 4 to 6 months in jail. And if the choice of lie applied to the esteemed Medal of Honor, you could end up behind bars for one year. The act was supported on both sides of the aisle, and for a time it served as both deterrent and weapon of justice, meting out righteous retribution to more than one valor thief.

Xavier Alvarez on trial.
Xavier Alvarez on trial.

But by 2012, the Supreme Court balance had shifted with Obama’s appointing of Sotomayor and Kagan, and in an outrageous move, they struck down Bush’s Stolen Valor Act. The catalyst was the case of United States v. Alvarez, in which the defendant, Xavier Alvarez, stated before his local Three Valley Water District Board in California that he was a combat-wounded Marine and a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Every word out of his mouth was a lie, and when the Stolen Valor Act would have had him imprisoned for up to a year, on June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the act to be a direct violation of his First Amendment rights. And just like that, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which stood to protect the medals won in blood and death by military members, was struck down.

In 2013, the Stolen Valor Act was heavily revised so those who lied about medals could only be prosecuted if they were lying to obtain “money, property, or other tangible benefits” and even included a list of which medals the Supreme Court felt were worth caring about. Such acts of blatant deception and outright theft through claiming heroism of which they took no part is no longer a felony under the heavily revised act, either.

Veterans rightfully take stolen valor personally, which is why there are some who have made it their mission to expose frauds. Retired SEAL Senior Chief Don Shipley of Class 131 outs SEAL imposters on a regular basis on his Extreme Seal Experience site, and former-SEAL-turned-lobsterman and sleuth Steve Waterman estimates he’s exposed more than 100 fakes to date. Websites Stolen Valor and Guardian of Valor are also known for successfully outing phonies and liars. But the sad truth is, these dedicated men cannot do much beyond internet-based humiliation with occasional moments of widespread exposure. And those who steal the valor and courage of others deserve far more than verbal embarrassment.

As a journalist, I vet my sources as thoroughly as possible. It is not a process I relish, and also not one I take lightly; poking into service records and lives at random is strictly verboten in my book. Of course, it is often immediately evident when something is awry. Whenever possible, whatever information I’ve gleaned about a fraud is turned over to applicable authorities, but the cold, hard truth is they can rarely do much about it, partly thanks to the way the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 was overturned. Cowardly men living vicariously on the combat-wounded backs of our most heroic warriors get away with their deception on a regular basis.

What can be done is to take the issue of stolen valor with deadly seriousness. Facebook has become a breeding ground for these scammers, who are often no more than shakedown artists looking to bilk women out of their hard-earned cash. But that’s not all they are; at least once a month a fake crosses my radar by some means, and the idea of written fame – no matter how fleeting – seems to appeal to their egos. They hope for attention, yes, but they’re angling for monetary and other tangible benefits. In Spokane, Washington, this past winter, a man going by the name of Mark Hans Smith stooped so low as to lie to a young boy, taking his hard-earned purebred German Shepherd as a service dog and even managing to get free training at a respected K9 club before disappearing when a group of journalists closed in.

Stolen valor is not a private problem; it is a national epidemic. 20 years ago, the mystique of the US Navy SEALs was fairly well protected by lack of public awareness, and today every loser hoping to snag a girl is using the SEAL name to get lucky. Perhaps it would be true justice if those committing the sin of stealing valor were simply handed over to the very groups of men they claim to be a part of, whether SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, or others. If the government refuses to fully prosecute men with the gall to get by on the heroism of others, why not leave it to you? One thing is for sure, if the punishment truly fit the crime in the form of private retribution, incidences of stolen valor would plummet. And that, that is what I call justice.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth

11 thoughts on “Medal of Dishonor: Taking a Look at America’s Stolen Valor Epidemic

  1. As abhorrent as stolen valor is, I would counsel anyone against the vigilante justice that the author appears to be advocating. Law enforcement agencies are strongly populated with former service personnel who also take a dim view of stolen valor. Your first port of call should be to report instances of stolen valor to the relevant authorities and leave it to them to do their job. Taking the law into your own hands is likely to end up with you suffering a worse fate than the guy you are seeking to out.

    As to individuals using war stories to ‘get lucky’, my advice is the same as I gave my daughter when she first started dating – believe only half of what you see, and none of what you hear.

    1. Speaking from personal experience, the authorities are incredibly limited in what they’re able to do. Their hands are effectively tied, largely thanks to the idiocy of the Supreme Court.

      Of course assault charges are never something anyone goes looking for, but reality remains that these impersonators do not have any true motivation for stopping. They simply continue to multiply like bacteria in a subway restroom. Although it would be wildly irresponsible of me to hand out baseball bats and truncheons, that doesn’t change the feelings of the SOF community at large and many other service members: stolen valor is not just rude or obnoxious, it’s disrespectful, selfish, and worthy of a good smackdown. It belittles the sacrifices made by everyone who has ever served, and especially those men who have given up so very much serving this country, including their lives. They are spitting on the graves of the fallen, and I cannot simply stand by and watch it happen.

  2. Some of us care. A lot of people could care less. Check this story, published in hardly a reactionary right wing publication, but rather in the NY Times:
    This was published -before- the election. A sitting state Attorney General has not just been lying, but is guilty of stolen valor.
    636,000 Connecticut residents then went to the polls and voted for him, and he won election to the United States Senate.,_2010
    Ninety-nine other members of the United State Senate sit in the same room with him, without spitting on him, cursing him, or even standing and turning their backs when he speaks.
    I give you sitting United States Senator Richard Blumenthal, and worse yet, all the people who serve with him and voted for him.

    1. Sad to say Erik, but this guy Blumenthal simply proves the old truism that you can tell when a politician is lying, because his lips are moving.

      It is also very much the case that there are many people out there who think it is ok to lie on their CV, whether it is about their public service, vet status, education or sporting achievements.

      They usually justify it with the assertion that “everyone does it”. Well no, everyone does not do it and it is fraud, plain and simple. Blumenthal was trying to get elected to the Senate. He was trying to obtain a benefit by deception. Last time I looked, that was fraud.

      But no one in authority was prepared to call him for the criminal that he is. Why? Could it be that there are a few other politicians out there with skeletons in their closets and lies on their CVs? It’s starting to look that way.

    2. Yes, politicians from both sides of the aisle have been growing dirtier with each passing second, but it is an entirely new low when it’s stolen valor. Lying about their educations, birth certificates, and mistresses is a far cry from bold-faced lies about military service. The government continues to slide, and the people continue to vote in liars and frauds. Thank you for bringing the Blumenthal issue up; it’s incredibly important people see an example of just how far stolen valor is going in this country – and how those in power simply look the other way.

  3. Since these bas***ds claim seal status,send them in harms way. Those who have served are a treasured resource.
    Thank you for serving.

  4. Send these POS to Don Shipley, he has a channel on youtube channel called fake navy seal of the week, or Buds 131, calling these scumbags out, i just wish his training class would go put the beat down on these scumbags just to see if they really wanted to be a Seal, kind of an initiation for the stolen valor….just my thoughts…

    1. Don Shipley absolutely does a fantastic job of outing fakes; there’s a link to his website in the body of the article, in fact. I have to agree I’d love to see the imposters turned over to the real SOF guys, whether SEALs, Delta Force, Rangers, MARSOC…then they can get an up-close-and-personal look at the men they apparently want to be (yet they don’t want to put the actual effort in).

  5. I firmly believe if you claim it, you better have served it or earned it! I say for those who are commiting this heinous act out there, you will be found & outed no doubt. But if you claim it , & havent earned or served, I say let the body you claimed & took from punish you & FORCE you to SERVE & EARN!

    1. I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly, Jared. Gilbert had it right when he said “let the punishment fit the crime.”

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