Stolen valor a slap in the face, but now it’s legal

bmorem@thetribunenews.comJuly 3, 2012 

San Luis Obispo has had its share of colorful characters over the years, some of them wearing chests of medals. Consider Juan Baptista Romo, a vaquero and seafarer who would ride his palomino into San Luis Obispo each day to hold court with anyone who wanted to hear a tall tale.

Was he a decorated hero as his medals would suggest? Not even. Before he died in 1963, he told a Telegram-Tribune reporter, “I wear (the medals) for looks. People ask questions and the more they ask, the more I put on.

When the last war started, people began to say, ‘Look at the medals,’ so I began to put on and put on.”

As they say, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be because it’s a safe bet that hucksters and shysters have been claiming military heroism — co-opting those who have been rightfully honored — since the beginning of time. Some of those frauds are simply blowhards, while others have used their claims for fraudulent purposes.

Apparently the practice had become widespread enough in recent years that Congress made it a punishable offense in 2005 by passing the Stolen Valor Act. The U.S. Supreme Court last week struck down that act with little fanfare on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment’s right of free speech.

In other words, SCOTUS, on a 6-3 vote, says it’s not against the law to lie about having been in the service and/or being a decorated war hero.

“The nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority opinion in United States v. Alvarez.

“Though few might find respondent’s statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and expression.”

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

I make note of the decision on this Independence Day 2012 in light of a homeless man who’s been living off and on in an RV on Prado Road and telling all who will listen that he was a member of the elite Navy SEALs and earned the Navy Cross and Purple Heart for his efforts.

His story, as it turns out, is a complete fabrication. But it made it to the Internet, where a legitimate wounded veteran, Steven Williams, read it and decided to check on the man’s claims; after all, the Navy Cross is the second-highest honor — the congressional Medal of Honor being the highest — that can be given. And, as it turns out, most of its recipients have been honored posthumously.

After checking on the claims, Williams wrote to me: “The U.S. Naval Warfare Personnel unit in DC has no records of him receiving the Navy Cross. The Navy Cross Association never heard of him, Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Veterans Administration have never heard of him.”

A website, playing on the sympathies of readers, solicited donations for this homeless, “decorated vet.” Because of this, Williams reported the site to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, as well as the Naval Criminal Investigations Service, for committing fraud. His story has subsequently been taken down by the online source, with a retraction in its place.

How often has violation of the Stolen Valor Act taken place? No one can say for sure; however, a website called Secured Targets-Stolen Valor-Reality Show lists dozens of cases where impostors claimed to be war heroes — boasts that led to prison terms.

In light of the Supreme Court decision, however, the question arises: Although the Stolen Valor Act is already being rewritten to bring it into constitutional compliance, will these convictions now be overturned on appeal?

Dana Cummings, co-founder and executive director of the Association of Amputee Surfers (AmpSurf) and county veterans services officer, said, “We’re very disappointed with the court for them to not respect the honor of a veteran’s service by allowing nonveterans to impersonate them and be able to seek benefits based on their false allegations of being a veteran. We’re just really disappointed. My personal feeling is that it’s disgraceful that someone would impersonate a veteran.”

Other responses to the ruling run the gamut — from livid outrage among those who served honorably, to one of resignation, to this, as reported at SFGate.com:

“There are lots of things people do that revolt me, but I’m happy that I fought for this country not to give them the right to do something stupid, but for the majority of the people to do the right thing,” said Jack Jacobs, 66, who earned the Medal of Honor in 1969 for carrying several of his buddies to safety from a shelled rice field despite the shrapnel wounds in his head, the streaming blood clouding his vision.

“I’m a free speech guy,” he said.

What are your thoughts? Drop me a line at bmorem@thetribunenews.com.

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