Most of us have, at one time, encountered or heard about military imposters. Famously, actor Brian Dennehy, who played Sheriff Will Teasle in the 1982 Stallone film First Blood, claimed to have fought and been wounded in the Vietnam War. While he, in fact, did serve in the United States Marine Corps from 1959–1963, he was never in Vietnam. Stolen valor is the behavior of military imposters: individuals who lie about their military service. They fall into two categories: civilians who have never been in any branch of the military, and real veterans who make false claims exaggerating their experiences or accomplishments.
I have personally experienced stolen valor on multiple occasions and find those engaging in such deception deplorable. Imposters may pose as veterans to obtain VA or other benefits, including money. Reasons for posing as a member of the military or exaggerating one’s service record may vary, but the intent is almost always about gaining the respect and admiration of others.
Upon enlisting in 1995, I felt pride when swearing to defend the U.S. Constitution and to protect the freedom and liberty of my fellow Americans. That feeling was mixed with emotions of the what-ifs that caused my family members to worry for my well-being, especially when I was stationed overseas. My time in the Army was no picnic, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if I were a younger man. I miss the esprit de corps and brotherhood of the so many honorable, good men and women in uniform.
People who have never experienced such actions and emotions, or who misrepresent their military service, are rightly punished for claiming they had. The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 makes it a federal crime to fraudulently hold oneself up to be a recipient of any of several specified military decorations or medals with the intent to obtain money, property or other tangible benefit and which allows for sentencing of up to one year in prison. And there are other means for the law to persecute military imposters.
Last month, Cascade County District Judge Greg Pinski sentenced Ryan Patrick Morris, 28, and Troy Allan Nelson, 33, to an extraordinary punishment for engaging in stolen valor. Morris, according to the Associated Press, got 10 years in prison for violating probation after a felony burglary and falsely claiming he was injured by an IED explosion during one of seven combat tours. Nelson was sentenced to five years for drug possession and enrolled in a veteran’s court before it was discovered he wasn’t a veteran at all (his own father ratted him out). During sentencing, Pinski gave them a chance for parole if they would abide by certain conditions.
Both must hand-write the names of all 6,756 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to qualify for parole, along with the obituaries of the 40 Montana soldiers in that group. They must also complete 441 hours of community service after being released from prison. That adds up to an hour per Montanan killed in combat stretching back to the Korean War. This lengthy list includes the obituary of Spc. Jonathan A. Pilgeram, 22, U.S. Army, of Great Falls who was killed Feb. 17, 2011 in Konar Province, Afghanistan, when insurgents attacked his unit. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, KY.
While on probation, these imposters must wear placards on Memorial Day and Veterans Day outside the Montana Veterans Memorial with a sign that reads: “I am a liar. I am not a veteran. I stole valor. I have dishonored all veterans.”
If Spc. Pilegram were alive, I expect he would agree with Pinski’s punishment for Morris and Nelson. He may think it too lax. Regardless, I believe we can all agree that stolen valor is a crime that disrespects and degrades those who have honorably worn a military uniform of the United States.
Kristian Richardson is president of Acceler8 Consulting and a U.S. Army veteran. He can be reached at Kristian.Richardson@gmail.com.