Defense & National Security

Stolen Valor: Supreme Court set to decide military phonies case

Stolen Valor: Supreme Court set to decide military phonies case
Xavier Alvarez, pictured, was indicted in 2007 after he falsely claimed that he was a retired Marine who received the Medal of Honor.

Big fish story or fraud?

That’s a nutshell synopsis of a decision the Supreme Court is expected to hand down this week—arguably, one of the year’s most important cases that few people have ever heard of.

At issue are the claims of California huckster Xavier Alvarez, who was elected to a local water board and lied to fellow board members about having received the Medal of Honor. That landed Alvarez afoul of the federal Stolen Valor Act, which penalizes those falsely claiming military combat medals with up to a year in prison–or did, until the famously liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California overturned the law and Alvarez’s conviction in 2010.

But Colorado military historian Doug Sterner maintains that the statute guards against more than resume-boosting lies.

“It is a pattern of unlawful activity, a pattern of deception, a pattern of taking advantage of people,” he told Human Events this week.

“Stolen valor isn’t lying; it’s impersonation. It is stealing the identity of a wounded warrior or a legitimate veteran or an American hero.”

Sterner entered the business of exposing military phonies unwittingly, when he began an exhaustive project to catalogue online all recipients of the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor, the military’s two highest awards. (To this day, no complete database for less prestigious medals, such as the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, exists.)

As he collected records and citations, he frequently came across reports that proved too good to be true: individuals who constructed fables of military service and high honors in hopes of securing respect, trust, and perhaps glory from their communities.

In 2005, Doug Sterner’s wife, Pam, helped draft the Stolen Valor Act, which became law in 2006.

Famous military phonies

Though a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, Sterner said his work to expose phonies isn’t a grudge match. He’s armed with story after story of military frauds who used their false claims to commit larger crimes: Alexander Kemos, a former Texas A&M administrator who resigned in disgrace after it was discovered his claims of being a former Navy SEAL and his Master’s degree were fabricated; “Admiral” John Perry, whose psychopathy was hidden in stories of heroism, and who ultimately attempted to kill his wife; Gregory Schaffer, who built trust by posing as a Navy SEAL on a dating page, then attempted to rape a 15-year-old girl, according to news reports from this month.

In the last case, Sterner told local news outlets in New Jersey that prosecution would have been a “slam dunk” for the Stolen Valor Act.

“The outrage isn’t them claiming to be something that they aren’t, it’s the concern for the people these predators take advantage of,” he said. “My attitude toward stolen valor would not change were I not a veteran. I would still feel exactly the same way.”

Sterner now comes across 200 to 300 stolen valor cases per year.

For Purple Heart recipient John Cooney, it is personal. An adjutant for his branch of Military Order of the Purple Heart in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Cooney has come across two Purple Heart phonies, both of whom tried to parlay the awards for financial gain and honor.

“It brings down the morale of the guys who do rate this stuff, people who claim to be a hero and they’re not,” he said.

Sterner, who heard the Supreme Court argue the case in February, said he is optimistic about the court’s decision, particularly after Alvarez’s lawyer, Jonathan Libby, admitted to Justice Elena Kagan that the statute did not impede any truthful free speech.

But if not, new bills to criminalize acts of stolen valor have been introduced by Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and remain in committee.

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