Just two weeks after the Supreme Court overturned the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 on the grounds that the legislation violated the right to free speech, Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and Nevada Republican Rep. Joe Heck took another try at legislation that they say would protect the legacy of award-winning veterans from a more constitutionally correct angle. [Why Is the Pentagon Unable to Keep Awards Records?]
The Supreme Court ruled that when Xavier Alvarez boasted to an audience at a community meeting that he was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, his lie was protected by the First Amendment. Defenders of the Stolen Valor Act say lies like Alvarez's not only do a disservice to those who have honorably served in the military but are often used to defraud the government and earn unwarranted veterans' benefits.
In an effort to put something back on the books quickly, Brown and Heck called on Congress on Tuesday to pass the Stolen Valor Act of 2011 (first introduced last year by Heck), which would make it a federal misdemeanor for someone to profit from lying about their military service, records, or awards.
"We must protect the men and women who earned awards for outstanding service, but we also must protect the very liberties for which our service men and women sacrificed," Heck said Tuesday of the First Amendment concerns. "The Stolen Valor Act of 2011 would achieve both objectives."
Both Heck and Brown have served in the military, Heck in the Army Reserve and Brown in the Army National Guard.
The legislation would penalize individuals who fib about the prestigious awards they have won in order to receive veterans' healthcare benefits, obtain a government contract, or get a job that would otherwise be reserved for a veteran.
"Sadly, there are some who would seek to tarnish the meaning of exemplary service to the United States of America," Heck said. [High Court: Free Speech Trumps Insulted War Heroes.]
Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb—a former Marine infantry officer and Navy secretary in the Reagan administration—introduced his own legislation Tuesday. The Military Service Integrity Act of 2012 would likewise penalize people for gaining benefits for lying about their service.
Tracking veteran award fraud, however strong the legislation, has its own unique set of challenges, though.
For starters, no comprehensive database of all the military personnel and the honors they have earned exists.
Although the Pentagon hinted Tuesday that it was considering creating one, a switch from its earlier position that the database would be too costly and time consuming of a project.
"We are taking another look at that decision," Pentagon spokesman George Little said during a press conference. "We are exploring options to stand up a database of valor awards and medals. We haven't arrived at a final conclusion yet, but that process is ongoing."
"Most people, including military veterans, are stunned to learn there is not a database," says Doug Sterner, the curator of the Military Times' "Hall of Valor." "It is good the Pentagon recognized the value of a complete database of valor recipients in combating stolen Valor."
Sterner, frustrated with the lack of comprehensive data on veterans' honors, began his own database 15 years ago. Today, Sterner spends 14 hours a day collecting records from the National Archives, the Navy Yard, and the National Personnel Record Center and cross checking veteran claims in media against his own records. And Sterner says he's learned that fraudulent service claims are more common than many would think.
"I get two or three reports every single day," Sterner says. "I'm inundated with them."
So far, Sterner has collected records for 105,000 awards given to veterans out of the roughly 350,000 given out above the bronze star.
"DOD said this database couldn't be done and it is 30 percent done by the work of one man," Sterner said.
According to the Office of the Inspector General's semiannual report, in 2011 a OIG opened 102 "Stolen Valor" cases and arrested 48 people on fraud charges. Convictions from Stolen Valor cases during that period resulted in $2.4 million in fees and restitution.