Stolen Valor or Dress Up? You Decide

By Thomas E. Cheever, P.E.

A video clip is making the internet rounds showing a purported disabled veteran confronting a young man who asked him for a cigarette about his service.  It’s not clear where the video was taken, but to this writer, the veteran was out of line and here’s why.

stolen valor

Stolen Valor

Stolen valor is falsifying and/or lying about military service for compensation and or personal gain.  The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The law made it a federal misdemeanor to falsely represent oneself as having received any U.S. military decoration or medal. If convicted, defendants might have been imprisoned for up to six months, unless the decoration lied about is the Medal of Honor, in which case imprisonment could have been up to one year.

Ist Amendment

The Supreme Court struck down the Stolen Valor Act in June 2012.  Asserting that the First Amendment defends a person’s right to lie — even if that person is lying about awards and medals won through military service, the Supreme Court upheld every citizen’s 1st amendment rights.

In his written opinion, Justice Kennedy said,

“The Act by its plain terms applies to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person.  . … [T]he sweeping, quite unprecedented reach of the statute puts it in conflict with the First Amendment. Here the lie was made in a public meeting, but the statute would apply with equal force to personal, whispered conversations within a home.”

“Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable.”

Stolen Valor 2.0

A year after the Supremes declared the 2005 law to be unconstitutional, President Obama signed into law the Stolen Valor Act of 2013.  The law makes it illegal to make the claim of military service, awards or medals with the intent to obtain money, property or other tangible benefits.

Military members, veterans and veteran organizations support the new law.  John Stovall, director of national security and foreign relations for The American Legion said,

“I think this was necessary because people were using it to receive the benefits of decorations of valor, and they were getting monetary benefit from it.  That’s why we supported the amended version, not to infringe on anyone’s First Amendment rights but to protect the reputation and meaning of the decorations.”

A quick internet search and you can find examples of Stolen Valor.  To military veterans, and especially those that served in combat, a ‘poser’ or ‘wannabe’ can be sniffed out in a heart beat.

The interaction can start off  with a simple mention of military service.  Somewhere along the way there’s a mention of a Purple Heart,  and a few other honors earned.  The non-veteran would be thinking, ‘How can you not trust a man who served his country so gallantly?’  But for the veteran, quick calculations of age, time in grade, service locations, all begin to run through the mind.  And the poser continues.

From there, confidence builds, one story weaves into even more glorious tales until, at some point, the fabrication is woven so tightly you begin to suspect… How can one person achieve so much in such a short time?

It’s almost too good to be true.  And it often is.

Bummin’ a cigarette

The young man in the video is not a poser, he’s not wearing a name tag/tape, he has no medals, no awards. Other than a cigarette, he is not seeking any compensation or personal gain.   For his smoking habit, he had the unfortunate encounter with the purported disabled veteran.

Watch the video below.  I believe the young man does have some life issues.  He said he joined the service the day before.  Hmmm………Is it possible some recruiter signed him up?  Yeah, I suppose it is, but he didn’t claim the uniform items were his nor did he claim he’d been to recruit training.

The disabled veteran is out of line.  Maybe he was having a bad day, maybe he’s wound a bit tight. But he had no right to go off on the boy.  He’s just a kid wearing his big brother’s uniform.  Whether he felt he was honoring his brother, or just playing dress up, we may never know.

Claiming military service is despicable.  So is burning the American Flag, or trampling on it, but that too is free speech and protected by the 1st amendment.

Wearing an ACU shirt and trousers with civilian work boots and belt does not constitute impersonating a service member. The vet owes the young man an apology.

Since 2012, according to the Supreme Court, dress up is NOT stolen valor.