Stolen Valor Has Consequences

The photo of a US Army Sergeant First Class in dress blues appeared two days ago on a closed Facebook group for veterans. The petite, startled-looking man in the uniform, whose neck could use a good shave to bring him up to regs, has apparently seen a lot of action. His chest is a fruit-salad of ribbons, his sleeve slashed with hash marks.

Vets at the group’s page, which has more than 36,000 members, post and comment generously. On this photo, posted by a page administrator, there are already 557 jeering comments, and 180 angry/laughter emojis and likes, because the guy is a military fraud.

“Guess when he steals valor he takes all of it,” one member writes.

Group members point out that despite the man’s youth, he has apparently (by the hash marks) served decades. He wears a Marine officer’s saber and a few Navy ribbons on his Army uniform. His Combat Infantry Badge (CIB) is on the wrong side, his ribbons are incorrectly covered by his lapel, and he may be wearing the wrong hat. Because he wears both a “Wintered Over” device on his Antarctica ribbon and the Korean War Service Medal, one vet says that “unless they back-date commendations for past lives,” the man’s CIB was “for the assault on Troy.”

“Easy to pick out this fake,” they agree.

The military has its own sense of humor, which vets often carry into civilian life. Comments on the post are mocking but good-humored, and they call the guy little worse than “loser,” “low-speed high-drag,” and “Salvation Army.”

“Look where the face is located,” one says. “Should be where the butt is.”

Claiming military valor without earning it can cause emotions to run high, however. Even my quasi-pacifist friend, who never served, believes it should be a crime.

It is, sort of. In 2006 President George W. Bush signed into law the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. It made anyone who wore military decorations without earning them guilty of a federal misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in prison—12 if the Medal of Honor was used. The Supreme Court struck that down as an abridgment of freedom of speech. The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 added that the medals must be used to try to get money, property or some other tangible gain by fraudulence. The man in the photo committed no crime by merely wearing the uniform in public, or even if he posted it on his own Facebook page.

But the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes curates a Stolen Valor section; there is a YouTube site that outs those who do it, and several web pages publicly shame them. Some posters or commenters come close to doxing the perpetrators, inviting retaliation. My friend says he cannot understand why some Marine who served in Kunar does not take a ball bat to these guys. (He is an incomplete pacifist.)

Sometimes the falsehoods seem to creep up on the people caught in them. Nate Phillips, the Native American man who was in the news, recently, when he stepped between white high-schoolers and Black Hebrew Israelites in Washington, DC, was accused of stolen valor. He had made a statement saying he was a “Vietnam-times veteran,” who had been spit on and called a baby-killer, but that alone could have been a misunderstanding. (I started my service seven years after the war ended and was called a baby-killer, along with friends, in a Pizza Hut in Florida.) It was a more tangled statement when Phillips added, “I’m what they call a recon ranger. That was my role.” Even this, it could be argued, was said in the context of being in a forward role at Standing Rock.

But then: “I’m a Vietnam vet, you know,” Phillips says in a video (here at 9:45). “I served in the Marine Corps from ’72 to ’76. I got discharged May 5, 1976. I got honorable discharge and one of the boxes in there shows if you were peacetime or… what my box says that I was in theater. I don’t talk much about my Vietnam times. I usually say ‘I don’t recollect. I don’t recall,’ you know, those years.”

Military records appear to show Phillips was never in Vietnam and served most of his time as a refrigerator technician. None of this has much to do with the DC incident, but it can be used in that squabble anyway, to strip Phillips of any authority to speak.

Because the proof of stolen valor is often visible or a matter of record, it seems weird people try it so frequently and brazenly. These are just lazy lies, made of cardboard and shoe polish, which wash away in the first hard rain.

The most recent instance is relatively high-profile and, perhaps, more ridiculous and damaging than previous ones. The lead Army investigator in a murder case against a Special Forces (Green Beret) officer has been discovered to have falsified “promotion files and other records by listing on at least three occasions a Purple Heart award that he never received and the ‘unauthorized wear’ on other occasions of that ribbon, the Air Assault Badge, Pathfinder Badge and Combat Action Badge, none of which he rated.” The Investigator, a Sergeant First Class, has been suspended from duty, Army Times reports, and his actions could have a “serious impact” on the murder trial—even dismissal.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.