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.
As 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.
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.
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