Imagine you’re in a bar and the guy next to you starts impressing a crowd with stories of battlefield bravery and military decorations. Only you know he’s faking. How could you prove it? It’s not far-fetched: California water official Xavier Alvarez claimed to be a Marine who retired with twenty-five years of service and a Congressional Medal of Honor for getting “wounded many times by the same guy” – but listeners had no way to know whether he was being honest.
There is a saying that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth laces up its shoes. As for Alvarez’s claim to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society lists over 3,400 actual soldiers decorated for their heroics, but that’s only one of many military awards, and unless someone happened to know about the CMOHS online database and whip out a smartphone at the moment to pull it up, such a claim would likely go unquestioned, letting some people bask in the glory others earned.
That may be why the Supreme Court recently decided to consider the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which makes it a criminal offense to falsely claim certain military awards and decorations. The Ninth Circuit and a Denver federal judge have each held the statute to be an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. In response, the solicitor general asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal – and it agreed. (For more commentary, see The First Amendment Center’s Tony Mauro and Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog.) (You can read the law yourself at 18 U.S.C. 704.)
The Freedom of Information Act enables investigators and resources to expose such fraud (over time), as shown in the coverage below:
- October 3, 2010: “Stolen Valor group works to uncover military impostors” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
- May 10, 2010: “One man’s database helps uncover cases of falsified valor” (Washington Post; also #532 in our FOIA Files)
- August 2, 2009: “In Ranks of Heroes, Finding the Fakes” (New York Times)
- July 6, 2009: “Phony 4-star, others infiltrate MCA” (Marine Corps Times)
- April 12, 2009: “Far more POW claimants than actual POWs” (The Associated Press)
- October 26, 2008: “Claim of medals amount to stolen valor” Chicago Tribune; also #343 in our FOIA Files)
- April 12, 2007: Don’t Tell Glenna Whitley You’re a Vet if You Ain’t. Because She Knows. We’re Lookin’ at You, Brian Dennehy. (Noting that Whitley wrote a book, “Stolen Valor”, about people who fabricated claims of service) (Dallas Observer blogs)