Stolen Valor was born in Colorado before dying with the Supreme Court
In this week's cover feature, "Will the Real Rick Strandlof please stand up?," Westword delves into the fascinating story of 35-year-old college student Rick Strandlof, whose past false identities ended with a second chance last month. On June 28, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the Stolen Valor Act of 2006, effectively dismissing all charges Strandlof incurred when he posed as a Colorado Springs Marine captain.
When Strandlof appeared to the public as Captain Rick Duncan, he told friends, veterans and politicians that he had earned the Purple Heart and Silver Star as a result of his service. Under Stolen Valor, which amended similar legislation under Title 18 of U.S. Code in 2006, Strandlof had broken the law by falsely claiming to have won a military award. After suspicion arose around his story in 2009, his case moved from a federal district court in Denver all the way to SCOTUS before the justices determined Stolen Valor violated the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech.
While Strandlof's Colorado case is one of the best known examples of the act, the currently defunct law shares another large tie to the state: It began here. The act as it was written into law started with then-47-year-old political science major Pam Sterner, whose professor at Colorado State University in Pueblo assigned an essay on bills she and her classmates would like to see come to fruition. Sterner overheard her husband, Vietnam vet Doug Sterner, discussing the implications of forfeit awards with an FBI agent and drafted a 25-page proposal to better protect against the action.
That proposal eventually found its way to then-Representative John Salazar, a veteran who shared her intentions and asked his staff to draw up a bill. Two years later, President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act into law, where it survived for six years. And while Stolen Valor is momentarily defunct, its supporters are already rallying to launch its successor, a more narrow bill that would target the concepts of measurable damage outlined in the Supreme Court decision -- namely, what benefit violators get from their lies.
"It's really hard for me to figure out what the tangible damage is for someone say, writing a book predicated on false military service," says Denise Maes, public policy director at the Colorado ACLU. "They get something of value, and it is a lie, of course, but typical fraud cases require a measurable amount of damages. The second piece of the problem is, 'What is of value?' If someone gets a date because they are lying about being a vet, that's still a value, right? That example shows how ridiculously broad the law can be."
The Supreme Court's decision has also spurred organizations such as the Pentagon to launch reliable online databases of military awards, something Doug Sterner says the military has been "exceptionally lax" about to date. In 1998, Sterner began his own database of every military award above the Bronze Star at a personal website called Home of Heroes.
"Believe it or not, the defense department doesn't even know about a lot of these awards," says Chris Kelly, the senior web producer who helps oversee the Military Times' Hall of Valor site. In 2007, the Military Times hired Sterner full-time as an archivist, thereby gaining access to the approximately 105,000 awards he has cataloged to date. "They can get lost in things like the fire in St. Louis and any number of accidents."
The same year, the Military Times launched the aforementioned Hall of Stolen Valor, dedicated to chronicling all violations of the 2006 act. Every day, Sterner and Kelly receive at least three e-mails asking them to verify someone's claim to an award, Kelly says, either for family history or stolen valor allegations.
But "that database is not about stolen valor; it's about forgotten valor," insists Sterner, a former Army Sergeant who points to Strandlof's case as a perfect example. "It's about the accounts of men and women who did perform heroically and sacrifice greatly and earn these awards, and about preserving all of that. I would argue that we still need a stolen valor ruling -- for the sake of history."
More from our Politics archive: "Aurora theater shooting: Michael Hancock declines to speak out on gun control."
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