May 25, 2019
An instance of stolen valor might be punishable if someone profits from it.
This weekend, I’m going to try to get two of these posts done in order to do some catching up. Since Memorial Day is around the corner, this post is dedicated to a term associated with the U.S. military — and frauds.
Who Coined the Term ‘Stolen Valor’?
Surprisingly, the term “stolen valor” is relatively new. According to Alex Nichols, the term was coined by B.G. Burkett, who wrote a book of the same name, which was published in 1998. In that book, Burkett fact-checked the stories of anti-war veterans with the express purpose of casting the Vietnam War in a positive light. Since then, many fact-checkers have taken to do their own detective work whenever someone claims to have received certain military honors or to have had certain experiences tied to the U.S. military. In fact, the website Stolenvalor.com, which was originally put up to advertise Burkett’s book, was transformed into a full site in which amateur investigators closely inspect certain military claims made by individuals.
What Is Stolen Valor?
In short, stolen valor is when someone lies about receiving military honors or achieving specific feats in the military. It may be as simple as someone embellishing their record, wearing military medals they didn’t earn, or wearing a genuine military uniform in order to fool people. Some people go the extra mile to forge government documents to “prove” that their record is real.
Lying about military service isn’t just limited to someone who has never served in the military, but people who served but didn’t have a stellar record do it, too. Even people who served with extraordinary or otherwise honorable records may embellish their records to impress others.
Stolen valor is most closely associated with the Vietnam War, but people have lied about their service/experiences or lack thereof in other American wars, like World War II and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Ruyle).
What’s the Punishment for Stolen Valor?
It depends on the level of the crimes committed and where the crime was committed, but federal statutes may apply in cases concerning fraud. In many cases, harsher penalties will be doled out to people who profit from falsely claiming military honors, but it looks like the most someone will be sentenced for stolen valor is one year in prison.
We have the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, which was passed on June 3 of that year. Introduced to the 113th Congress by Rep. Joe Heck, the law makes it a federal crime for anyone to falsely claim that they received certain military honors for the express purpose of obtaining money, property, or other tangible benefit. The text of the bill calls for fines, a prison term no more than a year, or both for those found guilty of committing this type of fraud (GovTrack.us).
However, just lying about one’s military service or wearing unearned medals isn’t enough to warrant punishment. And punishing that might be a violation of the First Amendment.
United States v. Alvarez
The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 was a law passed to amend title 18 of the United States Code in order to bar anyone from falsely claiming to have received military awards. Under the law, which went into effect on December 20, 2006, the unauthorized wear, manufacture, or sale of any military decorations or medals was a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison. If the Medal of Honor was involved, though, offenders would face up to a year in prison.
On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled by a 6-3 decision that the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 unconstitutional. The majority concurred that the law was a violation of free speech. The case the SCOTUS weighed on, United States v. Alvarez, was initially decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on August 17, 2010 by a 2-1 decision (Various).
The Case of Elven Joe Swisher
On Monday, January 11, 2016, a specially convened 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that someone wearing unearned military medals was a free-speech issue. The court overturned the 2007 conviction of Elven Joe Swisher, an Idaho man who wore a Purple Heart while testifying on the stand during the trial of David Roland Hickson, who was prosecuted for the crime of soliciting the murder of a federal judge. It turns out that Swisher was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1957, but he never received any medals during his service (Elias).
Is Stolen Valor That Big of a Deal?
I would say it is, depending on the instance of it and what someone gains from it. Cases of fraud, whereby someone profits off their lie, should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Many people who are concerned with stolen valor argue that it’s disrespectful to real military veterans, but I feel that lies of military honors or experiences in war told by people of high stature are among the most damaging.
For instance, take the case of Brian Williams. For years, he lied about his experiences flying in a company in Iraq. The lies varied from him being in an aircraft that followed a Chinook that was hit to being in a Chinook that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was able to get away with this until 2015, when his record was closely scrutinized.
This wasn’t the only lie Williams had told. For example, he had also lied about being embedded with Seal Team 6 and being in Berlin the day the Berlin Wall came down (Byers).
As a result of his lies, Williams was made to apologize, and he was suspended. However, he is now featured on MSNBC, so he escaped a harsher, more appropriate punishment for his lies.
Williams’ lies were especially bad because he is supposed to be a journalist. The news is where many of us get our information and if we cannot trust the press, it makes it harder for us as citizens to be informed and to participate in our government as citizens. This is dangerous not just because it is disrespectful to those who have actually served in wars and earned honors, but it’s a direct threat to democracy.
Byers, Dylan. “Brian Williams’ alleged lies: A list.” Politico. 13 Feb 2015. Web. Retrieved 25 May 2019. <https://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2015/02/brian-williams-alleged-lies-a-list-202585>.
Elias, Paul. “US Court: Wearing Unearned Military Medals Is Free Speech.” Military.com. Military Advantage. Monster Worldwide. 12 Jan 2016. Web. Retrieved 25 May 2019. <https://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/01/12/us-court-wearing-unearned-military-medals-is-free-speech.html>.
“H.R. 258 — 113th Congress: Stolen Valor Act of 2013.” GovTrack.us. 2013. Web. Retrieved 25 May 2019. <https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/hr258>.
Nichols, Alex. “The absurd conservative obsession with ‘stolen valor.’” The Outline. 20 Dec 2017. Web. Retrieved 25 May 2019. <https://theoutline.com/post/2707/stolen-valor-videos-youtube-military-fakers?zd=1&zi=v7trvmgv>.
Ruyle, Thomas. “What is ‘Stolen Valor?’” Stripes. 16 June 2010. Web. Retrieved 25 May 2019. <https://www.stripes.com/news/veterans/what-is-stolen-valor-1.107359>.
Various Authors. “Stolen Valor Act of 2005.” Wikipedia. Last Updated 21 May 2019. Web. Retrieved 25 May 2019. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolen_Valor_Act_of_2005>.