The headlines this week that a former Minnesota man’s story about being wounded in Afghanistan was called into question was of personal interest to me and thousands of other veterans. Timothy Poe, who auditioned on the NBC show ‘America’s Got Talent’, said he was wounded in combat when an enemy rocket propelled grenade hit him as he was diving for cover, and left him with back injuries as well as traumatic brain injuries. Within hours, soldiers who had served with Poe in the MN National Guard deployment began to call his account into question on Facebook and military blogs like This Ain't Hell, and by the next day the news media began to investigate. Though Mr Poe is innocent until proven guilty, there is a preponderance of evidence stacking up against him, and now allegations of other instances of him exaggerating his service record are beginning to come to light.
Not coincidentally, the United States Supreme Court is currently pondering the Stolen Valor Act, which makes Poe’s alleged actions a serious crime. The act makes it a felony to represent oneself, either verbally or in writing, as having been awarded any medal authorized by Congress, such as the Purple Heart. The law has been challenged as an issue of free speech, with the argument being that making exaggerated claims about military service doesn’t harm anyone directly, and is in effect a victimless crime.
But military veterans will tell you otherwise. Every time someone is found to be telling falsehoods about their service, every time a politician exaggerates their record, every time a down on their luck individual claims to have been awarded for heroism or valor on the battlefield, veterans as a whole suffer for it. Military service, and especially combat, is consistently regarded by the general public as one of the most respectful and patriotic careers. Those who steal valor take away a little of that trust and respect, and cause people to doubt the true hero.
But frauds and charlatans take more than just our trust-too often they take people’s money. RickStrandlof in Colorado posed as a combat wounded Iraq vet in order to solicit donations to a charity he is accused of keeping for himself. Xavier Alvarez, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court challenge, claimed to be a Medal of Honor recipient and parlayed that into elected office. More dramatically, some of these liars are stealing directly from the taxpayers. For instance, the Department of Defense lists 20 servicemembers who were held as POW’s during Desert Storm, but he Department of Veterans Affairs is paying financial benefits to 286 people who claim they were official prisoners during the Gulf War. DOD says there are 545 living POW’s from the Vietnam War, yet the VA is providing benefits to almost 1000. Mr Poe’s story dramatically improved his chances of winning on the TV show, until he was accused as a fraud.
Claiming to be combat veteran in order to finagle a few free drinks at a bar seems to be a time honored tradition, and perhaps caveat emptor is enough to suffice for the small stuff. But those who lie before crowds of people not only dishonor themselves; they are taking from all of us. Some take money, others take trust, but all of them are taking the honor and respect our veterans deserve. The Army taught me that the easiest way to curb bad behavior is to make the punishment bad enough that it is simply easier to do the right thing. In that vein, Stolen Valor needs to be not just morally and ethically wrong, but legally wrong as well, and the punishment needs to be severe enough to deter anyone from stealing valor from our veterans.