Many cases of stolen valor — like that of James McCaffery, who admitted to lying about having two Purple Hearts for decades to rise through the government ranks — are more widespread than anyone knows, according to military historians who track these cases.
Many of those liars will never face justice, as the Pentagon still lacks a comprehensive database of medal recipients and federal prosecutors — dissuaded in part by a Stolen Valor Act that is weaker than it once was — don’t prioritize the cases, they say.
“It’s pretty disgusting, because I have friends who are in Arlington who only got to wear their medals as they were being buried, and these guys just pin them on like they’re buttons or decorations,” John Lilyea, a former platoon sergeant in the U.S. Army who tracks stolen valor cases, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “That’s what sets off most veterans, because we know people who didn’t come home.”
Lilyea has tracked down and investigated stolen valor cases on his website — This Ain’t Hell, But You Can See It From Here — since 2008, compiling hundreds upon hundreds of alleged fraudsters through tips and extensive research.
“You’ll see it’s not a unique case,” Lilyea told TheDCNF, referencing the McCaffery case. (RELATED: Senior Obama Official Fabricated Purple Hearts To Get Gov’t Jobs For Decades)
Doug Sterner, a former Army sergeant and military historian, who runs the Military Times’ Hall of Valor database of medal recipients, said stolen valor cases take “time away from typing up the citation of legitimate heroes.”
“It’s a far bigger problem than anybody realizes,” Sterner told TheDCNF.
Law enforcement officials made 78 arrests for stolen valor between Jan. 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2011 alone, generating more than $10 million in restitution and $5.4 million in savings, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Inspector General (IG).
There are far more instances of stolen valor than law enforcement officials ever pursue, but both Sterner and Lilyea have run into the same problem — federal authorities are reluctant to prosecute cases they refer, viewing stolen valor as a low-level offense.
“Nobody seems really interested in it — even with the Stolen Valor Act, most prosecutors don’t think it’s sexy enough,” Lilyea said.
The Stolen Valor Act prohibits anyone from lying about military service for personal gain, although the law in its current form is weaker than its original form in 2006, before the U.S. Supreme Court declared the original law unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds in 2012.
Congress passed a new Stolen Valor Act in 2013, this time requiring personal gain for fabrication to be illegal. That change, Lilyea and Sterner said, made federal prosecutors even less eager to prosecute cases.
“That new law is a very, very weak law that really doesn’t accomplish a whole lot and requires them (prosecutors) to show a financial gain from it, and it becomes so complicated that most prosecutors don’t want to mess with it,” said Sterner, whose wife, Pam, helped author the original Stolen Valor Act.
“It’s pretty worthless right now to be honest with you,” Sterner — whose wife, Pam, helped author the original Stolen Valor Act, said. “We don’t see a whole lot of stolen valor cases being prosecuted today.”
But there’s another reason why stolen valor is so tough to prosecute.
“It’s not easy for any employer or even a government agency to verify these claims because the military has kept track of only the Medal of Honor,” Sterner said.
The Department of Defense (DOD) until recently had no database of all medal recipients. The Pentagon announced plans to begin compiling a searchable database of all medals in 2012, “but even there they admit that it’s not complete,” Sterner said.
“I have been doing for the last 20 or 30 years what the DOD has said it cannot do,” Sterner said.
Sterner wants Congress to become more involved in the problem. He testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (HOGR) in a hearing on preventing stolen valor in 2012, but congressional action has underwhelmed him.
“The lack of good record-keeping is another side of the stolen valor, valor stolen from legitimate heroes,” Sterner said.
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