This week the Supreme Court will examine the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act in the case of the United States vs. Alvarez; it is an important First Amendment case having to do with whether or not it is illegal to lie. Xavier Alvarez ran afoul of the 2006 law that makes it a federal misdemeanor to lie about having been awarded any US military decoration. The punishment is six months in jail and a full year if one falsely claims to have won the Medal of Honor.
Alvarez, a member of a California water board, claimed in public meetings to be a retired veteran and recipient of our nation’s highest military honor. His story, like many impostors’, was so transparent that it quickly fell apart and Alvarez was subsequently convicted of violating the Stolen Valor Act. Upon appeal, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the act to be unconstitutional because it violated Alvarez’ right to free speech. One of the appeals judges, Alex Kozinski, wrote “living means lying” in his support of the decision.
Military fakes tend to come in four flavors: frauds, phonies, kooks and the confused. The last group are the easiest to give a pass to, for the most part. The military is big on oral tradition; it’s the way values, mores and codes of behaviors are passed along from one generation of servicemen to the next. That tradition doesn’t end when a soldier leaves the service and many laughingly refer to Legion and VFW halls as “Liars Clubs.” As evenings wear on, tales tend to get taller and shaggier and usually no harm is done, but from time to time a real vet gets caught up when his sea stories switch from “we” to “I” and the vet suddenly finds him or herself as the guest of honor at a Veteran’s Day parade basking in unwanted attention. Plenty of veterans have been caught in this trap to the embarrassment of themselves and their organizations.
Kooks are a little different, but generally get a pass as well. There is a compulsion that causes people to seek to bask in the glow of a thankful nation’s praise. Clearly pathological, the kooks’ tales tend to be elaborate and, for the most part, completely unbelievable. Take, for example, the case of “General” David Weber who was found out after giving a speech at a Marine Corps Birthday Ball. Weber told bizarre stories, like how he swam out of a torpedo tube to single-handedly rescue an Iranian princess. More impressively, he did this with no prior training and was selected for the Top Secret mission because he was the only one small enough to fit in the tube. This to a roomful of former and active duty Marines. There isn’t a name for this form of delusional behavior, but someone is surely working on it.
Phonies, like Alvarez, aren’t crazy, just contemptible. Phonies make up the vast majority of the military posers plaguing the landscape. How big is this phenomena? A former SEAL and Vietnam veteran who busts military fakers for a hobby once said, “There were 500 SEALs who operated in Vietnam, and I’ve met all 20,000 of them!” Phonies also tend to have elaborate stories, mostly of Top Secret operations they can’t tell you about, then they tell you about them.
Frauds are never just grunts or sailors; they are always Green Berets, Scout-Snipers, Recon Marines or SEALs. Many claim to have been POWs, but of course there’s no record because their missions were all Top Secret. Ditto proof of their service or medals... “Top Secret. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
Last, and most contemptible, are the frauds, and this is where the Alvarez decision will balance. Frauds are those who are getting something other than unearned adulation for their lies. These scammers’ operations run from ripping off lonely hearts on the Internet to defrauding the government. Here’s the scale of the problem; the Department of Defense reports that 21 US servicemen were listed as POWs in the First Gulf War, currently the Veterans’ Administration is providing services and disabilities to 286 of them. Of the remaining 551 servicemen who were captured during the Vietnam war, but ultimately returned home and are still alive, 996 are receiving VA disability payments. One Korean War vet collected almost a half-million dollars in benefits before it was discovered that he never served, much less in combat.
Frauds are frauds and are easily punished as such; they are materially profiting from their lies which almost always involve counterfeiting service documents. It’s the other three types of impostors that pose the biggest challenge for the court. Is lying protected speech? We’ll soon find out when the Supreme Court judges Alvarez. In the mean time we need to consider why this phenomena has blossomed over the last decade.
There have always been military posers, either those who embroidered their records or outright lied. The internet has been both boom and bust for these scoundrels; while a fraud can easily get a blank DD-214, a military discharge summary that lists training, units and decorations, it is just as easy for an interested person to Google a “General” Weber and find out in seconds that no such officer ever served in the military.
Also, in the past decade, the public has been conditioned to reflexively treat everyone in uniform as a hero, which is a shame, because it has increased the temptation to fake a military record while at the same time diminishing the accomplishments and sacrifice of those whose heroism truly goes above and beyond the call of duty.
It’s a sad state of affairs, but you should treat everyone’s story with a little suspicion, particularly before reaching for your wallet. If a fraud can scam the Veterans Administration, they can scam you as well. And the more harrowing and unbelievable a veteran’s tale is, the higher your suspicion should be.
While it goes against all of our conditioning to question a veteran’s story, bear in mind one thing: most vets do their duty and quietly return home; to allow a fraud or a phony to tangibly or intangibly profit from a true veteran’s service is a disservice and you need to be on your guard before investing your trust or your money.