March 6, 2012: Six years ago, the United States enacted a law (the Stolen Valor Act) that made it illegal to lie and claim you received military awards for valor. One of the men recently convicted of this has appealed his sentence (three years' probation, a fine, and community service) by claiming the Stolen Valor Act tramples on the right of free speech and that one aspect of free speech is the right to lie about one's military service.
One of the interesting items to come out of all this litigation is the fact that the U.S. Department of Defense does not have a central database for those awarded these medals. To find out if someone had received a particular medal, one has to contact the service (army, navy, air force, marines, coast guard) involved and then the service record of the individual, or a database maintained by that service, must be inspected to see if the award was actually made.
Part of the problem is that all the services use some of the same medals, like the Bronze Star (for "meritorious service" or bravery in combat), Silver Star (for bravery in combat), and Purple Heart (for getting wounded). All the awards with the same name are supposed to represent the same degree of bravery and sacrifice but they don't. All services also award the Medal of Honor, and there are plenty of people keeping lists of who has received this award as this is the nation's highest award and rarely given. Right below it is the Distinguished Service Cross (for the army, Navy Cross for sailors, and the Air Force Cross for airmen), which is given out more freely. And then there's the Distinguished Flying Cross, just for people who fly. As far back as 1926, when the Distinguished Flying Cross was established, the first one to be awarded went to a civilian (Charles Lindbergh) for a non-combat bit of bravery (flying a single engine aircraft across the Atlantic). Some particularly brave and intrepid Air Force pilots have racked up as many as 13 Distinguished Flying Crosses, while no one has received more than two Medals of Honor. One person has received as many as seven Distinguished Service Crosses but this was a World War I pilot who got it for daring air operations. The Distinguished Flying Cross was invented partly to take care of the multiple awards that the brass loved to lavish on successful pilots. The Distinguished Flying Cross tends to be given out fifty times more frequently than the Distinguished Service Cross. So one reason for not keeping a central database is the possibility that it might start a squabble over why it seems to be easier to get medals in some services versus others.
Meanwhile, the government has other ways of cracking down on those who falsely claim military service. For example, after years of pressure from veterans the U.S. government finally cracked down on phony veterans, particularly those who claim to have been POWs (Prisoners Of War). Many of these fakes went even farther and claimed to be POWS when they claimed disability payments from the Veterans Administration. There is a financial incentive to make the claim, and for years the Veterans Administration ignored obvious evidence of fraud.
There are only 661 officially recognized U.S. POWs from the Vietnam period. About 500 of those are alive, but when questioned VA found that they were paying disability payments to nearly a thousand "Vietnam POWs." It got worse after the 1991 Gulf War. There were 21 officially recognized POWs during that conflict but the VA found it was paying disability to 286 Gulf War POWs. For years the VA claimed that they checked out the records before recognizing all these phony POW vets. Apparently there were not a lot of people at the VA who knew how to count.
Once recognized as a POW by the VA, you have several financial benefits (like not having to make copayments for medical services). Thus the fake POWs are also guilty of stealing money from the government. Veterans groups believe the VA resisted dealing with this obvious fraud because of unwillingness to deal with the resulting bad publicity.
Veteran groups have, increasingly, been going after these phonies independently and have unmasked thousands of POW poseurs. These groups have also exposed many more non-veterans who claimed service, including medals not earned. Some of these imposters even used fake documents to claim veterans' benefits. But most just did it to impress friends and acquaintances.
Some of the most outrageous fakers pretended to be veterans of elite units (Special Forces, Delta Force, Rangers, and SEALS). The boldest fakes pretend to have been U.S. Navy SEALs. The real SEALs are elite amphibious commandoes and there aren’t many of them (fewer than a thousand on active duty at any one time). There are only a few thousand real SEAL veterans out there. Yet in the last decade, over 25,000 people have been exposed as pretending to be former SEALs. There are volunteer organizations out there that expose these phonies. Only one in 200 people examined by these organizations turn out of have been SEALs. Some of the phonies have threatened lawsuits but none has ever followed through.
The number of phonies goes up whenever SEALs are in the news, either because of combat activity or because of a movie or TV show about them. Many civilians accuse the authenticating organizations of being vigilantes, as many people find nothing wrong in a little make believe. But SEALs, or any combat troops, operate in a very dangerous environment and have to train hard to acquire the skills that civilians are so keen on pretending they have. The phonies are seen by the troops as dishonoring the effort and sacrifices of the real SEALs. Moreover, the phonies are often embarrassing specimens of humanity who make the real SEALs look bad simply by association. So it’s not just a little harmless make-believe, it’s bad for the morale of people who risk their lives for all of us.