Is it a crime for a fake veteran to lie
about the medal of honor?
By Diane Curtis
At his first meeting as a board member of the Three Valleys Water District in eastern Los Angeles, Xavier Alvarez introduced himself this way: “I’m a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”
Only he hadn’t been awarded the nation’s highest award for valor in action against an enemy force. The Pomona resident later admitted he never even served in the military.
The FBI obtained a recording of Alvarez’ introduction at the 2007 meeting, and Alvarez was indicted and charged with violating the 2005 Stolen Valor Act.
Under the act, it is a federal misdemeanor for unauthorized persons to wear, buy, sell, barter, trade or manufacture decorations or medals authorized by Congress for members of the armed services or to falsely represent themselves as having received such a medal or decoration. Convictions can result in up to a year in prison.
A U.S. District Court judge sentenced Alvarez to three years of probation and community service, rejecting Alvarez’ argument that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. The First Amendment does not apply to statements the speaker knows to be false, the judge said. The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sided with Alvarez in his First Amendment appeal, and the case has now gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided last month to hear it next year. As Veterans Day approaches, the case is attracting significant attention and causing debate among First Amendment advocates and within the military itself.
Alvarez is hardly alone in lying about fighting for the United States and receiving high honors.
The FBI reports that in 2009 alone, it was “tipped off” to more than 200 fraudulent representations. The Chicago Tribune studied obituaries and Who’s Who and compared them to military records for a 2008 series on people claiming to have received medals of valor. The investigation found that of 273 obituaries published in the last decade, four out of five claims of having received decorations for bravery were untrue. Of 333 Who’s Who declarations claiming a high military medal, a third proved to be false. Fifteen of the untrue Who’s Who claims related to receiving the Medal of Honor.
The prevaricators who will explain their behavior give a range of reasons ― they wanted to impress a wife or a neighbor or a girlfriend, they fought in a war and felt they had been denied a medal they deserved, they felt important and were asked to make speeches and attend special events. Others pretend they received medals and honors in order to profit by, for example, getting increased disability payments or other benefits accorded to medal recipients.
Michael Taylor interviewed both authentic medal winners and those who lied about receiving them in the late ‘90s as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. The two groups were polar opposites, he said. Real medal winners were modest and unassuming. Those who never received the medals, who he said usually had served some time in the armed services, were loud braggarts.
One of the true recipients, Robert Pittman of Stockton, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for action in Vietnam, says bona fide recipients do not consider that they got the medal just for themselves. “The medal is not ours individually,” Pittman says. “Every time there’s an act of heroism that earns a medal, on that same day, many, many other people were killed. Those are the heroes who won’t come home again.” Every time someone who did not receive the Medal of Honor claims to have received it, “it’s an insult,” he said.
Pittman was a Marine sergeant in Vietnam when his company came under fire by an enemy force much larger than his. Hearing calls for more fire power, he picked up a machine gun and several belts of ammunition and rushed forward to help his fellow Marines. All the while under fire and shooting off rounds himself, he silenced one large group, kept firing and moving ahead and destroyed two enemy automatic weapons. Then he learned there were more wounded Marines up ahead. He continued forward, shooting while being confronted by more than 30 enemy soldiers. He took a place in the middle of the trail and continued shooting, first with his own machine gun, then with an enemy’s submachine gun and a pistol seized from a fallen comrade. He continued firing until the enemy withdrew.
When asked what should be done with fake Medal of Honor recipients, Pittman’s first reaction was, “They should be shot.” But what he really believes, he says, is that the Stolen Valor Act should remain in effect and those guilty of violating it should be sent to Veterans Administration hospitals “where they can see veterans and what veterans suffer for their country. ”
If the court doesn’t uphold the Stolen Valor Act, Pittman said, “you’re just slapping these guys on the wrist and telling them it’s okay to lie . . . There’s got to be some punishment.” When former Congressman John Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, introduced the Stolen Valor Act in 2005, he said, “Medal recipients are often too humble to parade their honors. By letting the phonies continue their masquerade, we diminish the honor of our true heroes. ”
Not infrequently, the impostors trip themselves up. Pittman said he ran into someone wearing a slew of medals, including the Purple Heart and Navy Cross ― in the wrong spot on the uniform. Taylor, the former Chronicle reporter, said he knew of someone who claimed to have rescued more than 50 stranded American troops during the Korean War in December of 1953. The conflict ended in July 1953 and the kind of plane the pretender said he was flying carried only two people.
In its 2-1 ruling, Judge Milan Smith, Jr., writing for the majority, said that while “deliberate and despicable,” Alvarez’ lie is protected by the First Amendment, just as are many everyday lies. “There would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one’s height, weight, age or financial status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one’s mother that one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway,” if the Stolen Valor Act were held constitutional, he wrote. “The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time. . . .
“The right to speak and write whatever one chooses ― including, to some degree, worthless, offensive and demonstrable untruths ― without cowering in fear of a powerful government is, in our view, an essential component of the protection afforded by the First Amendment. The greatest damage done seems to be to the reputations of the liars themselves,” wrote Smith.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado also has ruled that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional because it violates freedom of speech. A federal court in Virginia has ruled the opposite.
In a dissent in the California case, Judge Jay Bybee disagreed that false speech is constitutionally protected. “Knowing lies are unprotected by the First Amendment,” he wrote. “Until the Supreme Court tells us otherwise, the proper target for the majority’s concern is the legislature, not this court.”
He also took issue with the majority contention that no one was harmed, except, possibly Alvarez himself in loss of his reputation, by his fraudulent claims. “Alvarez’ statements dishonor every Congressional Medal of Honor winner, every service member who has been decorated in any way and every American now serving.”