Is it okay to lie about being a war hero?
While most of the nation was focused on the Supreme Court's June 28 decision on the Obama health care law, the high court also issued a ruling that day covering heroism, war, lying and criminality.
Upholding an appeals court, the Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Stolen Valor Act of 2006 that made it a crime to lie about being the recipient of a military award.
Although many fake war heroes have been exposed in recent years, this case was about Xavier Alvarez, a Los Angeles man who acknowledges he lied when he claimed to have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for valor.
Alvarez made the claim in July 2007, speaking at a podium as an elected official at a water board meeting. He repeated the claim in conversations with co-workers. He also claimed to have been a Marine.
Alvarez was never in the armed forces. But when prosecutors went after him under the section of the Stolen Valor Act that made it a crime to falsely represent oneself as having been awarded "any decoration of medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States," the Alvarez camp was ready with a quick defense: The free speech clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution, Alvarez and his attorneys argued, protects a citizen's right to tell a lie, even about being a military hero.
Even Alvarez now acknowledges his lie, as his lawyer put it, was "despicable."
But was it a crime? Initially, Alvarez was sentenced to a $10,000 fine and a prison term for up to one year. Many military people, including some who've been awarded real medals for bravery, wanted Alvarez to serve the sentence.
But Alvarez's defenders argued that if Congress can make it a crime to lie about receiving a medal, it can criminalize almost anything.
Consider: If I try to impress you by bragging about my football prowess as the star quarterback for the Oakton Cougars, even though I've never even attended Oakton High School, should the Fairfax County Police drag me away in handcuffs?
If I use Brad Pitt's photo instead of my own on my Facebook page, should federal law enforcement throw me into the slammer?
The stolen valor issue is an emotional one.
An Afghanistan veteran who received a service cross, the nation's second highest award for valor, said in a June 28 telephone interview that, "When people lie about receiving awards, it's a kind of identity theft. They're stealing the identities of real Americans who fought and in some cases died for our country." Real heroes rarely glorify themselves and this service member asked me not to use his name.
"The system worked. It just didn't work the way I wanted it to," said former Army Sgt. C. Douglas Sterner of Alexandria in another June 28 telephone interview. Sterner maintains a website about military valor (www.homeofheroes.com). "We're not finished yet." Sterner has hopes for a revised version of old law, the Stolen Valor Act of 2011 also called H.R.1775, which has been in the works since last year. "I believe the [Supreme Court] justices said, 'Come back to us with a bill that is constitutional.'"
Sterner used stronger language when interviewed on NBC television news, saying that some way would still be found to put fake war heroes behind bars. Most observers believe, however, that neither H.R. 1775 nor any other new effort to penalize lying about military awards has any real chance of being enacted on Capitol Hill.
About me: I was in the Air Force from 1957 to 1960, served in Korea, and have never played football.
I'm interested in the "stolen valor" issue because I write books, magazine articles and newspaper columns about military affairs, working in my home office in Oakton. My current book, "Mission to Berlin," is about American B-17 Flying Fortress crews in World War II and includes many real-world accounts of valor in combat. I was initially in favor of making it a crime to lie about being a recipient of a military medal. Now, however, I agree with the Supreme Court that this kind of lying, while reprehensible, should not be a crime. Most of my military-veteran friends are on the other side of the argument.