Lawmakers retarget ‘valor’ thieves after court rules bogus military boasts are free speech

A day after the Supreme Court struck down a law that made it a crime to lie about military service, veterans groups and lawmakers are gearing up for another battle.

The nation's top court voted 6-3 on Thursday that the Stolen Valor Act of 2006 infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment. The law, which was enacted amid the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, targeted those who made bogus claims about receiving the Medal of Honor or other military decorations. The retooled Stolen Valor Act of 2011 wouldn't stop barroom boasting about bogus service, but would take aim at people who benefit financially or otherwise from their phony claims.

“Now that the Supreme Court has laid down this marker, I will be pushing for a vote on a version of the Stolen Valor Act that will pass constitutional scrutiny,” said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., a colonel in the Army Reserves.

Thursday’s ruling centered upon Xavier Alvarez, a former local elected official in California who falsely claimed he was a decorated war veteran and pleaded guilty to violating the 2006 law. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the opinion, noted that "few might find respondent's statements anything but contemptible," but said there was no evidence to suggest that Alvarez received anything in exchange for his claims.

Heck's bill has 52 bipartisan co-sponsors, and Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., has introduced the Senate companion bill. Violators of the law, if passed, would face up 1 year in jail for the misdemeanor offense of lying about serving in a combat zone, serving with special operations force or being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In any other case, offenders would be fined or face up to 6 months behind bars.

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B.G. “Jug” Burkett, the Vietnam veteran whose 1998 book “Stolen Valor” inspired the original law, told he was “disappointed” by Thursday’s ruling, but expects another solution to be found.

“What I’m hoping happens now though is that Congress takes up this issue again, crafts a stronger law and makes it a felony offense,” the 68-year-old Dallas-area veteran told Friday. “Every state in the union has some law about impersonating a police officer, so I can’t imagine that Congress can’t include impersonating a military veteran in its laws.”

Roughly 75 percent of military histories Burkett checks for accuracy are bogus, typically offered by men with “low self-esteem” or as part of a scam, he said.

“I realized early on that just because it was in the paper doesn’t make it true,” he said. “And there’s a tendency to not check anything if it deals with a veteran.”

Informed of the renewed push for action on the 2011 version of the law following Thursday’s ruling, Burkett said he found the term “anything of value” to be problematic since very few military impersonators he’s found have received “tangible” benefits.

“In terms of benefits, is it a benefit or of value if the town of McKinney makes you the grand marshal of its town parade?” Burkett asked.

Jay Agg, a spokesman for AMVETS, a national veterans group, said Thursday’s ruling provides an “opening” to replace the 2006 law with legislation that avoid curtailing protected speech.

“If you benefit materially, and not just by getting a free drink, but something consequential — lying on a job interview, maybe you lie in the commission of another fraud — then you have a different set of circumstances,” Agg said. “It’s not just free speech. We’re going to ensure that the integrity of our military awards are protected and the interests of our veterans are served.”

Over the years, several instances of so-called stolen valor have made headlines:

—Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal defended his representation of his military service in 2010, admitting he misspoke about serving in Vietnam;

—Royall Switzler saw his 1986 candidacy for governor of Massachusetts scuttled when inaccuracies about his military record were revealed, having claimed he served in Vietnam when it he had actually only visited that country while on leave from non-combat duty in Korea;

—Tim Johnson, while managing Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays in 1998, told several newspapers in 1998 that his Vietnam war stories were complete fabrications and that he had been in the Marine Corps reserves during that span;

—Also in 1998, Joseph Yandle, a convicted killer who was set free in part because of his claims of valor in the Vietnam War, was taken back into custody after officials learned he only held a desk job and was far from combat. Yandle remains behind bars at the medium-security Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Mass.

—More recently, a Navy Reserve recruiter and aspiring country music star was charged with wearing the Distinguished Flying Cross and another award he didn’t earn, the Navy Times reports. Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Grady Wayne Nations, 43, was charged June 8 with violating Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for wearing a DFC and a Coast Guard Special Operations Service Ribbon.

—Questions are also being raised about Democratic Arkansas congressional candidate Kenneth Aden, a former Army staff sergeant who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but whose claims to have been a Green Beret do not seem to be supported by official records.

—Aspiring country singer Tim Poe, 35, was booted from NBC's "America's Got Talent" last month after his story of sustaining a traumatic brain injury by a grenade during combat in Afghanistan in 2009 was debunked.

Burkett, meanwhile, said he still gets angry every time he sees a news report of someone misrepresenting their past military service.

“For these individuals to claim that they served shoulder-to-shoulder with those real veterans is an outrage,” Burkett said. “To me, it’s a form of sacrilege.”