In a ruling largely overshadowed by the national health care bill, the Supreme Court last week declared that it is not illegal to fake military honors and awards.
The case arose from the prosecution of Xavier Alvarez, a public official who claimed that he had received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, after being wounded in action as a Marine.
Alvarez had been charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act, a 2006 law that made it a crime to falsely claim “to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States.” Alvarez admitted that his statements were false, but claimed that his lies were free speech protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed with him and overturned the law.
Though there are relatively few people who claim to have falsely received the Medal of Honor, there are many who have exaggerated or lied about their military past. Veteran actor Brian Dennehy, known for tough-guy roles in films like First Blood and Assault on Precinct 13, for many years told harrowing war stories about being wounded in action during one of his five tours in the jungles of Vietnam. In fact Dennehy was not wounded in the military and never saw battle in Vietnam; he later apologized for fabricating his past.
Sometimes everything about the story is false, but more often fiction is mixed with some fact. Mark Kirk, a Republican Senator from Illinois, admitted in 2010 that he made “mistakes” in describing his military service. During his Senate campaign, Kirk claimed that he’d served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (“The last time I was in Iraq, I was in uniform flying at 20,000 feet and the Iraqi Air Defense network was shooting at us,” he said in 2003), that he’d received the U.S. Navy’s Intelligence Officer of the Year award, and other military achievements.
Kirk was in the military, but served stateside during the Gulf War and did not receive the award he claimed.
In other cases the exaggerations may be chalked up to a difference in interpretation. For example former Minnesota governor and conspiracy TV show host Jesse Ventura was accused by a Navy SEAL of exaggerating his military credentials by claiming to have been a SEAL himself. Ventura was a member of the Navy’s elite Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) and received SEAL training, but did not operate on a SEAL team. Ventura later acknowledged that he had not technically been a Navy SEAL, but said that those who served in the UDTs were also commonly called “SEALs,” and the distinction was unimportant.
Because of the respect bestowed upon veterans, military service is among the most commonly exaggerated and fabricated achievements. Many of them get away with it for years because it’s considered unseemly and disrespectful to challenge or question a (supposedly) revered veteran about his or her military service.
Of greater concern are those with faked educational degrees; a person who lies about heroic military service years ago may be a scoundrel, but a person who lies about getting a pilot’s or medical license can be a real threat to public health. Exaggerating or faking military honors may be legally protected speech, but it can still get liars in trouble: Anyone who benefits (or tries to benefit) from honors can still be charged with fraud.