Protect Purple Heart Imposters, But Change The Law To Deter Them

There are two medals soldiers don’t want — the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart — because usually you have to die or be injured to receive them.

The respect one gains after being awarded such medals naturally leads to false claims, impersonators faking that they actually hold the award. Thus, the Stolen Valor Act 2005 makes false claims a federal crime. Unfortunately, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found it unconstitutional. The Justice Department wants to bring the matter before the Supreme Court.

I am a Purple Heart recipient myself following a suicide car-bombing outside of Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004. During that tour 10 men in my unit were killed. They all received the Purple Heart posthumously. My unit handed out many Purple Hearts that tour. I, like most veterans, don’t take such matters lightly. We sacrificed a lot for these awards. All gave some, some gave all. When false claimants are wrongly accorded the respect attached to military awards, they steal from the legacy of brave men and women who paid a high price for them.

The Court of Appeals based its ruling on the fact that the law is “content based,” meaning it is a government restriction on free speech on a certain topic, that topic being the claim of holding military awards whether false or not. The majority opinion argued that everyone eventually lies about something to others, whether as benign as age, weight, or size, or as far as education or military awards and the government doesn’t have a sufficient interest in deciding which lies are OK and which are not.

Laws relating to fraud and deception do not allow a person to intentionally deceive others for what they perceive as gain. Those who make a false claim to have won a military decoration hope to gain the respect accorded recipients of such an award. This argument is based upon the intent to gain from another through false statements, something altogether different from a “content based” restriction.

Unfortunately, Congress didn’t write the law that way. They wrote it in such a way that restricts making such statements outright instead of focusing on fraud and deceit. Though a subtle difference, the Supreme Court closely guards freedom of speech. The Court of Appeals ruling is correct. Unfortunately, this means the Justice Department will likely lose and the law will be struck down.

The good news is that the law can, and should, be rewritten within constitutional limits. It is correct so. Freedom of speech must be protected and it is one of the rights our troops fight for. The issue at hand is not the fact that someone makes a false claim; it is that they are fraudulently attempting to gain from it. The victims of the crime are the veterans who truly paid the price they steal from. Law is sometimes strangely elegant. This law should be struck down, but it should be rewritten to honor the sacrifice of those who have earned it.

Photo Credit: Wesley Fryer