Vail Daily column: The Stolen Valor Act
I am not a veteran. Nor have I ever played one on T.V. I am, however, honored to know a hefty handful of them and to count a number of them as my friends. I note that, in the main, they are a proud and honorable bunch and take great pride in having served their nation. And rightly so. Freedom, it is said, is never free.
What then to make of frauds, fakes, poseurs, charlatans, cheats and cons? What to make of those who would steal what is an even more precious treasure than gilt, coin or scrilla? What of one who would rob another of his honor, who would pose, prance and posture to be what he is not? What of the kind of slippery trickster who would claim to be a veteran when all he is, in fact, is a liar?
What has been making the recent rounds is a YouTube video from a mall in Oxford Valley Mall in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, where a so-called “Sgt. Major Yetman” claims to be an Army Ranger and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Rangers, by the way, are the Army’s elite, something you earn your way to by sweat, blood, fortitude and dedication. In the video, “Yetman” is called out by a real Army Ranger who, although unseen, can barely control his rage. And rightly so.
If you’ve watched the YouTube video, the videographer shouts out “stolen valor” several times. Which, you’ll note, is, conveniently, the subject of this column.
So what’s that all about?
The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 was enacted into law by President George W. Bush. It was a U.S. law that broadened the provisions of previous U.S. law addressing the unauthorized wear, manufacture or sale of any military decorations and medals. The law made it a federal misdemeanor to falsely represent oneself as having received any U.S. military decoration or medal. You’ll note a couple of sentences back, I used “was” instead of “is.”
Alas, in 2012, the United States Supreme Court, in the case of United States v. Alvarez, ruled the law unconstitutional. In a 6-3 decision (justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito dissenting), the majority found the act was an unconstitutional abridgment of the freedom of speech under the First Amendment.
So, with the decision, did honor go the way of the dinosaurs?
Well, not so much.
In 2013, a brand spanking new version of the law was resurrected, adopting the perhaps not so original name of the Stolen Valor Act of 2013.
The new act amends the federal criminal code to make it a crime for a person to fraudulently claim to have received any of a series of particular military decorations with the intention of obtaining money, property or other tangible benefit from convincing someone that he or she rightfully did receive that award. So free speech is protected; one generally can parade about playing solider and only certain acts — including defrauding others — are proscribed.
Specifically, the new act makes it a federal offense, imprisonable by up to one year, if, with intent to obtain money, property or other tangible benefit, one fraudulently holds himself or herself out to be a recipient of: a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, a Navy Cross, an Air Force Cross, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a Combat Action Badge, a Combat Medical Badge, a Combat Action Ribbon or a Combat Action Medal.
President Obama signed it into law in June 2013.
INTENT AND ACTION
You’ll note that the operative portion of the law deals more with fraud than with mere pretense. Whereas the former law made it a crime to simply pretend to be a solider when one was not, the new law requires both intent and action. What is interesting — at least to my lawyer mind — is what might constitute a “tangible benefit” other than property or money.
Webster’s offers a simple definition. Something “tangible” is something “capable of being perceived.” “Perceived,” in turn, means “noticed.” So a tangible benefit would be a good or helpful result or advantage that is susceptible to notice. Would wooing a fair lass with your false battle ribbons count?
The law is new and, I suppose, those sorts of things will soon sort themselves out.
What I do know is that to be a hero, rather than to simply be called on, requires heroism. And that respect is something earned rather than bestowed. When one robs one of his honor by pretense, other than our pity, what the law says he may earn is 12 months behind bars to think about the insult he has inflicted upon sacrifice and service.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.