Stolen Valor: How does it Affect Our Society?
A Local Accusation
Lone Pine, California, is not known as a hotbed of military and political intrigue. Rarely in the news, this small oasis in the Owens Valley enjoys the relative anonymity shared with its Eastern California neighbors along the state's Highway 395. However one man in the community is currently under investigation by the F.B.I for misrepresentation of his military record, citing accusations by some of his fellows at the local Lone Pine Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8036.
Bill Wenzel, stationed in Okinawa, Japan during the early 1970s, had no comment on the allegations that he falsified his military discharge papers, claiming to have received 2 Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star. Some of Wenzel's accusers have been members of the same V.F.W. Post and claim to fear retribution; some have in fact quit the Post entirely, not wanting to be associated with a "dishonest organization."
The Director of Public Relations for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, John E. Birchner III, asserts that Wenzel is indeed not a member of the Order, yet points out that investigations into stolen valor can be complex and lengthy.
Stolen valor is not a new crime, nor is it easily defined. Some claim that valor in and of itself cannot be stolen, indeed, they find that it is a quality inherent in an individual under the extreme duress of battle.
Originally signed into law as simply a misdemeanor in 2006 by George W. Bush, the legislation evolved:
"This bill establishes the Stolen Valor Act of 2007 which makes it unlawful for any person to knowingly misrepresent himself or herself as a veteran or a medal recipient. Any violation of the provisions of the bill will be a class A misdemeanor for the first offense and a class D felony for any second or subsequent offense."
Criminal Fraud or First Amendment Violation?
Johnathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University, has long studied the debate and concluded that it should be not considered a criminal offense, citing constitutional questions that are difficult to dismiss outright. In an N.P.R. Talk of the Nation interview conducted by Neal Conan in March of this year, Turley asserted that criminal fraud would be a more suitable charge in these cases. He goes on to argue that "...effectively, this law criminalizes every pick-up line in every bar across the country."
Turley questions whether freedom of speech is actually being threatened in these cases, particularly in the day and age of the Internet. It is common to exaggerate and pose as others in the cyberworld, and Turley claims that these charlatans and others should not be considered criminals, only pitiful and morally bankrupt individuals intent on false representation of themselves in order to gain attention. As it stands, the law applies whether or not benefit was incurred. Posing as a hero, claiming to have won honors, or even displaying such medals are sufficient grounds for prosecution. Numerous defense attorneys in these cases claim that misrepresentation of oneself as a medaled individual does not fit any of the banned categories of free speech: obscene, lewd, libelous, profane or creating danger imminent to others, such as shouting 'fire!' in a packed theater.
Those on the other side of the argument are adamant that Bush's Stolen Valor Act is necessary and echoes the wishes of our first Commander-in-Chief:
"Should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them, they shall be severely punished." -George Washington
Pete Lemon, a legitimate recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his Army service in Vietnam, supports the law and cites instances where fraudulent claims have brought gain both tangible and not:
"It gives you the power to entice somebody into marriage. It could give you the power to be able to join an organization, get special treatment with regards to getting tickets to a football game, getting license plates, getting preferential treatment in a job situation."
In 2009, Rick Duncan, aka Rick Glen Strandlof, claiming to have served in Fallujah, Iraq and decorated with both the Purple Heart and Silver Star, founded the now nonexistent Colorado Veteran's Alliance, a Colorado Springs organization aiding homeless and disabled veterans. His claims of battle experiences were met with suspicion by the Alliance's Board of Directors and it was found that he was indeed an imposter who had never served at all. This man's contributions were noteworthy as an advocate for Veteran's Rights, however his reputation has been irrevocably damaged. The charge of Stolen Valor remains, but since the case did not involve profit-the man in fact assisted veterans-Strandlof's case may be thrown out of court.
Xavier Alvarez of Pomona, California, was indicted in 2007 after claiming to be an ex-Marine at a public meeting honoring his election to a water district board. He went on to claim that he was a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration. Alvarez was sentenced to 400 hours of community service at a veteran's hospital and received a fine of $5,000.
The Congressional Medal of Honor has approximately 17 living recipients and is bestowed upon an individual displaying:
"[Conspicuous] gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against any enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party."
Morality and Legislation
All of these cases point to ethical responsibility and the reprehensible nature of claiming to have won honors others have sometimes given their lives to achieve. However the question remains whether or not such imposters should in fact be charged with crimes. As pointed out earlier in this article, the Internet is one example of a questionable place in which to place trust. Even face to face, some individuals are prone to lie for gain or attention. Perhaps this is part of the human condition, its frailties exposed and ugly-but is this tendency one that should be legislated?
I leave the question to you.
On October 15, 2010, Wenzel was sentenced to 50 hours of community service rather than a $500 fine. Jail time was not considered.
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