Defense Media Network

“Stolen Valor” Issue Is Agonizing for Everyone

Xavier Alvarez now says he was lying and wishes he hadn’t done it, but he insists he never committed a crime. In July 2007, speaking at a podium as an elected official at a water board meeting in Los Angeles, Alvarez said he was a Marine, had been wounded, and had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration for valor. He had made similar claims in conversations with co-workers.

The claims are untrue. Alvarez was never in the armed forces. But should lying about military service be considered a crime, to be punishable by a fine or even a jail sentence?

Alvarez’s detractors thought so. He was tried and convicted under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which makes it a crime to falsely represent oneself as having been awarded “any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States.”

Alvarez was sentenced to a $10,000 fine and a prison term for up to one year. But the 9th Circuit Court in Northern California ruled the Stolen Valor Act infringed on Alvarez’s Constitutional freedom of speech. The federal government appealed.

On February 27, the Supreme Court heard arguments for and against Alvarez, who insists that the free-speech provision of the First Amendment to the Constitution protects his right to lie. The court is expected to rule in June on whether the portion of the Stolen Valor Act that pertains to speech is Constitutional. The ruling won’t affect other sections of the Act that pertain to wearing unearned decorations – something Alvarez did not do.

In fact, with phony war heroes being exposed almost every day, Alvarez’s indiscretions seem mild compared to others. A sampling:

  • A district judge in Illinois displayed two Medals of Honor in a frame on the wall of his courtroom. He led lawyers, press and public to believe that he had earned two awards of the nation’s highest decoration, something that hasn’t happened in real life since 1918. The judge’s falsehood was discovered when he applied for Medal of Honor license plates in his state.
  • An airport security screener in Texas wore a Navy Cross, obtained American Legion license plates, and claimed to have been wounded in Vietnam. He convinced his employer (the U.S. government) and the local department of motor vehicles (his state government). But he had never been in uniform and officials learned of his frauds when a regional American Legion commander raised questions about him.
  • An unemployed man in Ohio claimed to be a retired Air Force colonel and fighter pilot who had fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. He accepted an invitation from a veterans’ group to be their dinner speaker. When another veteran became suspicious, it was learned that the man had served briefly in the Army as a private and had never been overseas.

Every one of these transgressions is a slap in the face to those who served and sacrificed. In the Alvarez case, even Alvarez’s attorneys say that he is a scoundrel and a jerk – arguments they use in his defense.

But is this criminal activity?

Is a fib a felony?

“This is a national epidemic,” said former Army Sgt. C. Douglas Sterner, who maintains a website about military valor (www.homeofheroes.com). “It’s a shame that when young men and women lose limbs and are awarded only with the Purple heart that the bogus people are wearing Purple Hearts and passing themselves off as heroes.”

In the book Uncle Sam’s Medal of Honor, Theophilus Rodenbough quotes Gen. George Washington in his order that created the Badge for Military Merit in 1782:

“Should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them,” Washington said, “they shall be severely punished.”

“Instead of being protected by free speech, these liars and thieves should be exposed and pursued with legal ferocity,” said Eric Benken, who was chief master sergeant of the Air Force from 1996 to 1999. ” These miscreants trample the honor of men and women who have bravely given their lives for this nation.”

“Saints may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying,” wrote chief judge Alex Kozinski, the appeals judge who agreed with Alvarez that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional. “Without the robust protections of the First Amendment, the white lies, exaggerations and deceptions that are an integral part of human intercourse would become targets of censorship” and enable the government to act as “truth police.”

Some critics wonder if the Stolen Valor Act amounts to “too much government.”

No matter how the Supreme Court rules, most provisions of the Stolen Valor Act and all previous laws covering medals will still apply.

It will still be illegal to buy, sell or trade medals. This is a crushing blow to historians and hobbyists who exchange and collect militaria – in effect, wiping out an entire hobby industry. Even a real-life recipient of the Medal of Honor cannot elect to sell his own medal.

It will still be illegal to wear and display medals that were not earned. It will still be illegal to impersonate any government official, including a military officer.

The Supreme Court case is about speech only.

Most observers believe the Supreme Court will strike down the provision within the Stolen Valor Act that penalizes speech. Alvarez will win his case and phony war heroes will retain a Constitutional right to lie.

But there can be no happy outcome because there is nothing pleasant about any part of this debate. It is almost obscene that phony war heroes, some of whom may need medical help, derive pleasure from describing heroic acts they never performed. But it is equally annoying, if not more so, that other Americans, some of them real war heroes, derive so much pleasure from exposing the fakes.

The tragedy underlying all this is that the nation has so many other problems to contemplate, all of which are more important.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-24360">
    Montgomery Garnett

    Strangely enough we as veterans served to protect their right to freely express themselves even if what they say is not true. The responsibility that elected officials have as guardians of citizenry should be enough to implement laws that prevent them from lying to their constituents on issues of personal accomplishments, which can sometimes influence whether they are elected or not.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-dwight-jon-zimmerman odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-24372">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    I devote an entire section about this in my own book UNCOMMON VALOR The Medal of Honor and the Warriors Who Earned It in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s one thing to exaggerate to friends and family, Alvarez was doing something quite different.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-24382">

    Unfortunately I think that public service, in addition to attracting those who want to serve others, also attracts those who want only to serve themselves. And since the rewards can be considerable, I’m afraid a proportion of our elected officials are always going to be people like Mr. Alvarez.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-24400">

    I think it shameful but not a crime. It is a question of character. Our laws are far too prolific and we convict for political and trivial offensives. Prosecutors are out of control.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-24432">

    It seems to me, the laws regarding Stolen Valor are a bit archaic, even perhaps , unconstitutional. However, ensuring the sanctity of honor has relevance. I believe the case should be more akin to perjury. The penalties should escalate based on the amount of harm inflicted to a business or person based on the lying, not simply because one lied.

    How do we just the impact of such a lie? Who is really being injured? Is it more important to punish one for lying, or attempt to rehabilitate the person? Are we a “punishment” society, or one that believes in providing a “second chance?’ Are we trying to destroy a person because we are outraged by their actions, or are we truly concerned about the harm caused by their seemingly outrageous lying and assessing the correct penalties?

    These, I believe, are the questions we need to pose to re-define the laws pertaining to “Stolen Valor.”

    We’ve had Presidents, Judges, Mayors, and the so-called “leaders of our nation” walk away from worse with far less pain to their lives. This case illustrates the flaws of our jury system. When we have laws that are archaic, and a court system tied to politics, and the lack of understanding of the law by layman who are typically driven by emotion, then we end up ruining lives and corrupting our system of law.

    Everyday citizens should not be expected to handle cases without the aid of lawyers and/or judges to assist them in understand the laws and the proper application of law. This is best left for the trained, educated, and certified lawyers and judges who do the work each day. Since we do not use tribunals or a system similar to tribunals that would also allow everyday citizens, we get this kind of crap for results. It takes more skill than , we, the public, are accustomed to on a daily basis. Change the system. Change the laws. Educate the public when they are selected for juries. Do you honestly think that “Joe the plumber” is going to be fair, impartial, and understanding if he is on a jury, not being compensated fairly for his time, ignorant of how the law works, biased because of predisposed notions and ideals, and uneducated in the system of law? If you do believe that, then you may be naive.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-24532">

    Does anyone know the name of the TSA screener in Texas who falsely claimed to have received the Navy Cross?

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-24596">

    Mike,

    I think what you’re looking for is in this article here: http://www.dallasobserver.com/content/printVersion/991663/

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-24640">

    Judge Kozinski, it seems, has never served in the military and has no clue what it takes to earn a medal.
    His quote that “living means lying” shows how out of touch he is.
    He sees lying about earning a medal is a right under Free Speech.

    How fast would he prosecute someone for claiming to be a 9th Circuit Court Judge ?

    And the guy is a hypocrite.
    He was presiding over an obscenity trial over fetish videos that included some with bestiality.
    At the same time, HE had a website up with a “video of a half-dressed man cavorting with a sexually aroused farm animal”.
    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-kozinski12-2008jun12,0,6220192.story

    Where is his understanding of the law ?
    Where is his common sense ?
    He claims he “accidentally uploaded those images”.

    Come on !
    Even a 10 year old knows that you have to choose what you upload.

    Like too many people in positions of power, he probably thinks that laws don’t apply to him.
    And that reflects the very sad state of affairs in the US.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-170084">

    In this story, the appeal or constant desire for personal acceptance has gone to extremes beyond those within the social media “likes” sought after by many via posted pictures and/or comments on Facebook and Instagram. This story is about an individual who lied not only about being a U.S. Marine but also about being a Medal of Honor recipient, the nation’s highest decoration for valor, when truth be known, he had never even served in the military. It’s an outright shame when we have individuals who seek acceptance by portraying themselves as heroes and in some cases as victims like Tania Head’s account of her 9/11 experience. She went from victim to hero to not even being there. Pitiful……these types of actions (and people)……simply pitiful.