They blend in to veterans groups and military parades, and usually sport a hat or jacket displaying the logo of a branch of the service. They tell intriguing stories about their military exploits with highly trained and super-secret special operations forces like the Navy SEALs, Green Berets or Army Rangers. Some may let you see their Medal of Valor, Silver Star Medal or Purple Heart. You instinctively want to thank them for their service. But beware. Those patches and medals can be bought online as fast as you can type in a credit card number.
The reality is that people who pass themselves off as a war hero by displaying a medal they did not earn are guilty of violating the Stolen Valor Act of 2013. An earlier version of the act was found to have abridged free speech and declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the latest version is very specific. It is a federal crime to flash a medal and pose as a war hero for personal gain. An imposter can be fined, sentenced to prison for up to a year — or both. Twenty-seven states have passed similar laws, New Mexico being the latest.
Some military frauds buy medals at memorabilia shows and pose as heroes simply to make themselves look important. Many others violate the law by soliciting or earning money from their deception.
According to the Guardians of the Green Beret website, Gilbert Rainault of Colorado claimed he was a Green Beret suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. His false tale attracted an angel investor, who loaned him considerable money to start ODA Tactical & Apparel. When his benefactor became suspicious and questioned him about his military service, Rainault bolted, taking valuable merchandise and firearms, and leaving behind what’s alleged to be a $100,000 debt. He was arrested earlier this year on charges of fraud, criminal impersonation and weapons possession. He was never a Green Beret.
William Hillar, of Maryland,0 raked in more than $171,000 by posing as an expert in counterterrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking, and sold training programs to various public safety groups. He lied for 12 years, and in 2011, the FBI caught on. He was ordered to repay all he earned, sentenced to 21 months in prison for wire fraud and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service at the state’s veteran’s cemeteries. I could give you countless more examples of stolen valor.
Why does this matter? My pal, Gordon Hamel, an Army combat medic with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam put it best. “Thousands of vets who served honorably have gone to jail and thousands more are living on the streets,” he wrote me in a recent email. “To see some gutless (expletive) wearing decorations that guys who were killed didn’t get, eats away at those of us who lived a year of horror.”
Hamel says no one can spot a military poser faster than an actual military veteran. The giveaways include how they wear their uniform, and where they place the medals and patches they buy.
If you have doubts about someone’s story, request a Freedom of Information Act report, or write to the Military Records Archive in St. Louis. Be aware, however, that the facility had a disastrous fire in 1973 and lost up to 80 percent of the Army files up till 1960 and 75 percent of Air Force files up until 1964. Don’t think crafty phonies don’t take advantage of that gap. If someone tells you the military has no record of his or her service because of that fire, be suspicious.
Websites like MilitaryPhony.com post current reports of military fraudsters, complete with their photos, military documents and FOIA reports. Administrators say that stealing the valor of true heroes is often just the tip of criminal activity.
“We have uncovered countless cases of criminal activity associated with individuals we expose,” a message on the site reads. “They often go through the lives of people around them like a tornado, leaving in their wake a trail of emotional, physical and financial destruction.”
I guess if you’d lie about being a war hero, lying, cheating and stealing from others might come easy.
The Guardians of the Green Beret website, which features “Heroes” and “Zeroes” sections, also keeps an up-to-date roster of imposters. A recent posting exposes a 32-year-old man dressed in full Green Beret regalia including a 12th Special Forces Group “Flash” patch on his beret. That was an immediate red flag to the site investigators, because the 12th Group was deactivated in September 1995, when the fraudster was just 9 years old. I discovered that one can buy a Flash patch for just $4.49 online. A Green Beret hat costs $17.95.
There are some 20 million military veterans in the United States. Nearly all of them are hard-working taxpaying citizens or unemployed, struggling and even homeless. We should not wait until Veterans Day in November to honor them. We should praise them every single day for their service. But we should also not believe every person who claims to have had a grand military career. True vets deserve the truth.