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Is It a Crime to Lie About Military Service?

Exaggeration, especially when it comes to military or combat experiences, is nothing new. Probably the only time that people exaggerate more is when talking about fishing or past dating. Lately it seems that everyone is lying about their past experiences, from Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly to NBC’s Brian Williams to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The more a veteran sees a person of trust, such as a news anchorman or an executive official, lie about their record the more that veteran may be tempted to do the same themselves, especially when there appears to be no consequences for such behavior.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that there are few things as important as duty, honor, and integrity, regardless of any outside consequence. When a veteran sacrifices his or her duty, honor, and integrity for pecuniary or social gain, that veteran violates a pillar of military service. In addition, dishonesty about military service can indeed be an actual crime.

It can be a crime to misrepresent your actual military service. On March 14, 2013, Jeffrey Scott Kepler was sentenced in federal court to one year and one day in federal prison and three years of supervised release for health care fraud. Kepler served in the United States Army for twenty-seven days and was honorably discharged for not meeting fitness standards. Kepler submitted to the VA a false DD Form 214 claiming to have served in the Army for almost three years. This DD214 also portrayed Kepler as an Army Ranger who had been awarded a Purple Heart, the Silver Star, and the Bronze Star for combat service in Vietnam. Because of his misrepresentations, Kepler fraudulently received VA health care benefits for three years. He was caught fraudulently attempting to obtain VA disability benefits. During the proceedings, Kepler admitted to acquiring and using military tattoos and memorabilia to falsely represent himself to individuals as a decorated combat veteran.

Even if you do not misrepresent your actual service, it can be a crime to misrepresent the severity of your disability. On July 18, 2013, Anthony Patrick Stanford was sentenced in federal court to two years in federal prison and three years of supervised release for making material false statements to the VA and Social Security Administration. Stanford lied about the severity of his disability. Relying upon Stanford’s misrepresentations, the VA gave him a rating of 100% disabled and gave him numerous other forms of financial assistance, such as aid and attendance. Because of this representation, Stanford was able to obtain over $500,000 from the VA for the period between 2005 and 2012 which he now has to pay back.

It can still be a crime to misrepresent your service even if it is not for the purpose of obtaining healthcare or disability benefits. On June 28, 2013, Tyrone Jones was sentenced in federal court to one year and one day in prison and two years of supervised release for falsely representing that his business was a service-disabled veteran-owned and operated business. Jones was ordered to pay back the $399,000 obtained. On November 8, 2014, Carlos Felipe Luna-Gonzalez was arrested for theft, tampering with a government document, and presenting a fraudulent military record. Gonzalez was an enlisted seaman who had never seen combat and who received an early General Discharge. He posted several pictures on various social media sites of himself dressed as an officer, a Navy SEAL, and wearing various medals including the Purple Heart. He also held himself out as a Navy SEAL officer to many residents of his town. Police set up a sting operation in which Gonzalez was to be awarded a “firearm of appreciation” worth over $2,000.00 for his service to the country. Gonzalez showed up to the arranged ceremony dressed as a Navy officer, wearing the SEAL trident, jump wings, and many awards, including the Purple Heart. He accepted the “firearm of appreciation,” explained how he was shot while in combat, and was immediately taken into custody.

In 2005, President George Bush signed into law the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which made it illegal to make false statements about military service and awards. The Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Stolen Valor Act, holding that it violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In writing the opinion for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that “[t]he Act by its plain terms applies to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person… [T]he sweeping, quite unprecedented reach of the statute puts it in conflict with the First Amendment…[It] would apply with equal force to personal, whispered conversations within a home….Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable.”

In 2013, President Barrack Obama signed into law the Stolen Valor Act of 2013. The 2013 Act gets around the Courts ruling by narrowly tailoring the offending acts. The statute lists the offending actions as “obtain[ing] money, property, or other tangible benefit” by “fraudulently hold[ing] oneself out to be a recipient of a decoration or medal.” The statute goes on to list the medals as the 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, or a Combat Action Medal.

Even when the action may not officially be a crime at all, military service is sacred and carries with it a sacred trust between active military personnel, veterans, and the countrymen they serve. There is a significant amount of loyalty and respect that average citizens give to military service members and veterans which often manifests as such offers of appreciation as free meals at restaurants and discounts at local hardware stores and movie theaters. Even if you do not face criminal prosecution for violating the law, violating the military pillars of duty, honor, and integrity, as well as violating the sacred trust between you and your fellow Americans, is ethically forbidden.

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