Military heroes were dealt a devastating blow for the second time in as many years on Thursday when the Supreme Court, in United States v. Alvarez, struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a crime to falsely claim oneself as a recipient of military honors.
After passing both houses of Congress by wide margins, the act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2006. It extended Congress’s efforts to protect the integrity of military decorations and the honor of those to whom they are issued by penalizing imposters who wear stolen medals or those who manufacture knock-offs. The practice of punishing false claims of military valor dates back to George Washington’s tenure as commander of the Continental Army. Anybody who falsely claimed a citation for heroism, Washington warned, would regret it.
Were he here today, Washington would be appalled at the number of Americans who’ve publicly lived out fantasies of their time as one of the few, the proud. There are thousands of cases of individuals who’ve posed as recipients of the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star or even the Medal of Honor.
False claims of heroism can result from barroom bravado or pathetic attempts to “get the girl.” Some lie about having received military citations to improve their social status. They falsely claim medals to impress a potential employer or the admissions committee of a school or prestigious club.
Yet such lies, the Supreme Court says, are protected speech. It didn’t occur to a majority of the justices that the government has a legitimate role in preserving the value of the citations bestowed upon military heroes. Instead, the court put the responsibility for protecting military awards on civilians — many of whom don’t have the requisite knowledge of history or military decorum to adequately refute false claims.
The court’s United States v. Alvarez decision is reminiscent of its Snyder v. Phelps decision. In that case, the court ruled that members of the hateful cult known as the Westboro Baptist Church have a First Amendment right to desecrate funerals of military personnel who died in the service of our country. The sacred nature of the ritual and the privacy of the family are irrelevant, the court said. The justices determined that the dignity of the deceased must take a back seat to the poison of the perverted mind. After all, the troops fight for our First Amendment right to criticize them.
Another case of a veteran getting a legal raw deal recently caught my attention. Veteran Ronald Thompson was sentenced by a Florida state court to 20 years in prison for discharging a firearm — for which he had a concealed weapon permit — into the ground in order to protect an elderly lady. The elderly lady was being confronted by her hostile teenage grandson and three of his friends, and the situation had the potential to turn violent. Nobody was hurt by Thompson’s action, no harm was caused and the confrontation ended without violence.
Thompson was convicted of aggravated assault. In Florida, people convicted of aggravated assault and found to have discharged a weapon during that assault are subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. Judge John Skinner considered that 65-year-old Ronald Thompson — who has diabetes and failing eye sight — served his country for 14 years in the Army and put in 5,000 hours of volunteer service at a local veterans hospital, and determined that three years of incarceration would be plenty.
“Not so fast,” said State Attorney Angela Corey, who appealed Judge Skinner’s decision to ensure that this veteran would die in prison.
Ronald Thompson has now won a new trial. But he had to sit in jail while authorities wrestled with the question of whether his honorable military and community service could be considered in sentencing, or if judges must blindly impose the mandatory minimum sentences set by politicians in Tallahassee.
In our nation’s capital, the Supreme Court has twice told veterans and their families to suck it up while charlatans steal their honor and vandals desecrate their funerals. And, oh yeah, thanks for your service.
Thomas P. Kilgannon is the president of Freedom Alliance, a charitable organization which honors and supports military service members. He is the author of Diplomatic Divorce: Why America Should End Its Love Affair with the United Nations.