In Ranks of Heroes, Finding the Fakes
Last August, the Texas Department of Transportation started asking applicants for more documentation after discovering that at least 11 of the 67 Legion of Merit license plates on the roads had been issued to people who never earned the medal.
Last September, the House of Representatives passed a bill naming a post office in Las Vegas after a World War II veteran who, it later turned out, had lied when he claimed he had been awarded a Silver Star. The legislation was rescinded.
In May, one of the most prominent veterans’ advocates in Colorado was detained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after it was discovered that his story about heroic service in Iraq and severe injuries from a roadside bomb was an elaborate hoax.
Military imposters are nothing new. But the problem has grown or at least become more obvious as charlatans are easily able to find fake military documents, medals and uniforms on auction Web sites.
At the same time, the Internet has also stepped up the cat-and-mouse game, allowing watchdogs to uncover fraudulent claims much faster and mobilize a more effective response.
“Public opinion of the military went up after the Sept. 11 attacks,” said Thomas A. Cottone Jr., who from 1995 to 2007 ran the F.B.I. unit that investigates cases of military service fraud, “and as more people joined the military and were being publicized winning medals, more phonies were getting ideas.”
Mr. Cottone said that in 2007 he received about 40 to 50 tips per week, roughly triple the number before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Nonetheless, verifying claims of military service and awards remains difficult because no official and comprehensive database exists. The problem has recently led to a number of embarrassing and potentially costly blunders by organizations with much at stake in policing the issue.
In April, The Associated Press found that the Department of Veterans Affairs was paying disability benefits to 286 supposed prisoners of war from the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and to 966 supposed prisoners of the Vietnam War. But Defense Department records show that only 21 prisoners of war returned from the gulf war, and that fewer than 600 are alive from the Vietnam War.
Last month, The Marine Corps Times found 40 erroneous profiles in this year’s Marine Corps Association Directory, including false claims of 16 Medals of Honor, 16 Navy Crosses and 8 Silver Stars.
In response, some members of Congress are calling for an investigation of the veterans department. Katie Roberts, a spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs, said the agency was working with the Defense Department “to analyze and verify the accuracy of the data.”
“The department fully intends to complete this review by the fall,” Ms. Roberts said.
A pending bill also seeks to make verification easier by requiring the Defense Department to create a national online database of all medals and honors awarded.
Committing military fraud usually starts with the fabrication of a false DD-214 form, a one-page summary that all service members receive when they are discharged. The forms, which are used to prove military service, list rank, training, awards and length of time in the service.
No database of these documents exists, but a 2004 study by the National Archives, which stores the paper records, concluded that all of those forms issued since 1947 could be digitized at a cost of $12 million, resulting in an annual savings of $4 million over the cost of retrieving paper records.
In April, a Defense Department report said such a database would be expensive and incomplete, since 18 million documents were destroyed in a St. Louis warehouse fire in 1973. Advocates say that other records can be used to substitute for the missing files.
For the time being, a spirited corps of volunteer debunkers, many of them veterans connected by the Internet, comb small newspapers searching for poseurs, file Freedom of Information requests for military files, and field requests for research help from employers, biographers and obituary writers.
“This kind of fraud matters,” said Doug Sterner, a decorated former Army sergeant, “because it cheapens the valor of service, warps the historical record and scams taxpayers of millions of dollars in veterans’ benefits.”
Over the past decade, Mr. Sterner has built an online database of 120,000 valor-medal recipients going back to the Civil War.
Special Agent Mike Sanborn, who since 2007 has led the unit in the F.B.I.’s Washington office that handles stolen valor cases, said that while the bureau did not keep statistics on the crime, the biggest increase came after 2006 with the passage of the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a federal crime to falsely claim, verbally or in writing, that a person had been awarded a medal. Previously, the law only prohibited wearing a medal that a person did not earn.
Some First Amendment scholars worry that laws regulating the use of symbols are similar to those against flag burning, which the Supreme Court has said are unconstitutional limitations on free speech. Others have also questioned whether overzealous activists risk slanderously and erroneously accusing people of fraud because of missing or misprinted military documents.
“Before we make any accusation, we check historical and military records, as well as tracking down former service members,” said Mary Schantag, who runs the P.O.W. Network in Skidmore, Mo., a nonprofit group that investigates claims to military honors and prisoner status.
Ms. Schantag, who is married to a veteran, said she had seen fraud complaints grow to more than 12,800 in 2008 from 22 when the group first went online in 1998.
Because prisoners of war and military medal winners have performed a service to society with their bravery and in some cases have endured humiliating forced marches, torture or other trauma that may haunt them for years, the government extends them special benefits, from free parking and tax breaks to priority in medical treatment.
Having been awarded a medal or classified as a prisoner of war does not directly increase a veteran’s monthly disability check. But tales of physical or psychological suffering can influence whether a veteran receives some money or nothing at all in disability payments, veterans’ advocates say.
Ms. Schantag said she had seen cases in which civilians lied for self-aggrandizement or money and veterans embellished their records to win the trust of loan officers, earn leniency in criminal sentencing or defer child-care payments.
Robert W. Levy, a former mayor of Atlantic City, resigned in 2007 after it was revealed that he lied about being a Green Beret and having been awarded combat infantryman and parachutist badges.
A decorated veteran who spent 20 years in the Army, including two tours of duty in Vietnam, Mr. Levy said in an interview that he did work with the Green Berets during the war, but that over time after he came home the experience led him to start making claims that he had been a member of the unit.
“It was wrong, and I should have corrected it ages ago,” he said. “I ruined my life with those claims.”
WA, wants to see a copy of orders for the Purple Heart Plates.