On Wednesday, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) chastised IRS contractor Braulio Castillo in a House Oversight hearing over a suspect veteran disability claim, which may have contributed over $500 million to Castillo's IT company.
Castillo attained special status as a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Business for his company, Strong Castle, based on claims of a foot injury he sustained during his time at military prep school 27 years ago. In a letter to a government official describing his injury, Castillo wrote, "My family and I have made considerable sacrifices for our country ... these are crosses that I bear due to my service to our great country, and I would do it again to protect this great country," to which Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and double amputee, responded sarcastically, "I am so glad that you would be willing to play football in prep school again to protect this great country. Shame on you, Mr. Castillo, shame on you."
Unfortunately, Castillo's abuse of the system is not novel nor unique. In 2007, Carlos Riosvalle of Portland, Oregon, was sentenced for multiple counts of theft by deception after collecting over $22,000 from Veteran Affairs ("VA") for being "shot down while a pilot in WWII," when he had never served in the armed forces. A similar case arose in 2008 when a Camden, New Jersy man who served as a payroll distribution specialist in Vietnam for only four months received $40,000 in tax exemption and $34,000 in benefits from the VA after adding false information to his records, including false injuries sustained in combat and medals he never earned. These are only two examples among many more.
Douglas J. Carver, special agent in charge of the VA Office of Inspector General, called the "phony war hero phenomenon" a "plague" that "tarnishes the service of thousands of veterans who have served honorably [and] takes away valuable resources from those who are entitled." Indeed, Carver's statement from 2007 remains true to this day, when Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with missing limbs are waiting an average of 237 days for an initial disability rating.
What's the solution? The VA Office of Inspector General has done a good job in prosecuting cases involving fraud and other illegal acts, but for cases like Castillo's where authorities have a hard time pointing to something more than an ethical violation, the solution is to raise awareness. By exposing individuals like Castillo to the public, like Duckworth did with her sarcastic but felicitous remarks, we can cause the public to become aware of these issues and encourage phony war heroes to think twice before following in Castillo's footsteps.