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Suspect Stolen Valor?

How to identify and handle military imposters

We’ve all seen pictures on social media of valor thieves. These ridiculously dressed imposters pretend to be Soldiers and walk around decked with every award, badge, patch, tab and cord they can find. Equally familiar are the videos where bull-headed Veterans confront them in public. The rage is justified, but is “stolen valor” actually illegal? And what are real Soldiers supposed to do when they suspect it?

To start, there are different types of stolen valor. Your approach should be different for each.

Know the types

In violation of federal law. The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 is federal law, but violators have to be wearing certain high-level awards or badges with intent to obtain some kind of benefit (i.e., free stuff, military discounts or benefits). Depending on the extent of their fraud, perpetrators can be prosecuted, fined or imprisoned.  

In violation of regulations. Say someone in your unit is wearing a Ranger tab, but their military records indicate they never completed Ranger School. While that may not be a federal offense, it’s still all kinds of wrong, according to AR 670-1 and AR 600-20, and that Soldier can receive a serious reprimand. 

Protected as free speech. Believe it or not, it is completely legal for someone who has never served a day in the military to buy a uniform at the local Army surplus, stick patches in all the wrong places and walk around like a war hero. They’re protected by the First Amendment. 

What you can do

Document. Get a picture of them in uniform. It’s usually all you need. Also, ask about their service, including details about units, schools, combat tours and awards.

Research. Visit and submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. They will send you almost everything about a person’s military career. If the person touts prestigious military schools or units, simply contact those organizations. They keep good records. 

Report. If it’s a violation of the Stolen Valor Act, send a copy of your findings to the Assistant U.S. Attorney in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred—and call the Veterans Affairs Inspector General hotline (800-488-8244) if you suspect a scam. If the suspect is a service member, report it to their chain of command. As for your garden-variety civilian poser, not technically in violation of federal law, there are several Veteran-run websites that you can contact to help spread the word.

What not to do

Do not get into a physical altercation. While it may seem like a great opportunity to practice that triangle choke you learned in combatives, don’t touch the poser. They may also be the type of lowlife that would press assault charges for even a graze of the arm. 

Do not speak with an aggressive tone. Instead, be inquisitive. Two reasons: 1) You might actually be wrong about them. Older Vets may not wear their uniform exactly right, but they don’t deserve to be humiliated (it happened recently to a 75-year-old Marine Veteran). 2) If you are correct about the suspect, getting them to talk to you, a knowledgeable Soldier, will make their fraudulent claims more obvious. 

The bottom line: Stolen valor is a big deal, but to preserve the honor and dignity of everyone who has ever worn the uniform, you need to handle it properly. Doing so protects these honors from cowards who would cheapen them. 

The Law

The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 makes it a federal crime for an individual who, with intent to obtain money, property or other tangible benefit, fraudulently holds himself or herself out to be a recipient of:

• Medal of Honor

• Distinguished Service Cross

• Navy Cross

• Air Force Cross

• Silver Star

• Purple Heart

• Combat Infantryman’s Badge

• Combat Action Badge

• Combat Medical Badge

• Combat Action Ribbon

• Combat Action Medal

• Any replacement or duplicate medal for such medal as authorized by law