On January 25, Lindsay Lowery posted a picture of herself on Facebook. The photo showed her in an Army uniform, carrying a rifle, in front of a Humvee. Below the photo she wrote about her experience leading an all-male infantry unit during her deployment in Iraq. The response was fast and furious: FAKE!
Posts and personal messages to Lowery asked how she could have been in an infantry unit, which in the United States military is traditionally all male. “You can do one of two things. Prove that you held an Infantry command — which you never fucking did, or remove your post,” one message read. “Otherwise, you’re going to have a real bad time. Embellishing is just as bad as stolen valor. And don’t think for a second that we can’t FOIA your records. Liar.”
A few hours later, the same person posted: “As a matter of fact, never mind. I’ll just have fun exposing your lying ass.”
Lowery, a stay-at-home mother in Castle Rock who writes for the website Mad World News, had posted the photo on a public page where she uses her pen name, Prissy Holly. Still, her story was real — and she had the documents to prove it, she said. She explained to her accusers that she had been assigned to an infantry unit as a platoon leader, and that the unit had been in charge of a jail and so did not serve in a combat role.
After that, she remembers, “hell was officially released.”
When Lowery woke up the next morning, she found hundreds of vile comments on her Facebook page, calling her a liar, a whore, a cunt. The frenzy lasted for several days, even as she posted redacted copies of her personnel records, a letter from her commander, even a video showing her accessing her deployment orders online. But her accusers just called her a forger, in addition to a fraud.
Lowery was familiar with the term “stolen valor,” but she was not familiar with the online groups that go after military posers, exposing those who lie about their military records, specifically regarding awards. These watchdogs see themselves on the front lines of a war, fighting against wannabes who steal and tarnish the valor of actual heroes.
Doug Sterner does not call himself a hero. The wiry, 65-year-old military historian describes himself as typical of the majority of soldiers, who did their job as well as they could and then went home. The Vietnam vet and two-time Bronze Star recipient launched a website named Home of Heroes in 1998. The website was designed to honor a friend who was killed in action two months after Sterner came back from Vietnam. Since then, Sterner, who settled in Pueblo with his wife, Pam, in 1990 and describes himself as a bit “OCD,” has compiled a list of 180,000 military-award recipients.
He has also found countless wannabes. The FBI estimates that for every real Navy SEAL there are 300 impostors, and for every one of the 120 living Medal of Honor recipients, there is at least one faker. Sterner received so many false claims that he put a “Bust a Phony” form on his site. He also began exposing those who lied.
He soon got help. At a Medal of Honor convention, a small but distinguished-looking gentleman in a neatly tailored suit approached Sterner, held up a picture of a veteran with a medal, and asked Sterner if he knew who it was. Sterner noticed that the Medal of Honor hanging around the man’s neck in the photo featured the Air Force design, and told him there were currently only six living recipients of the Air Force Medal of Honor — and this man wasn’t one of them.
The man smiled broadly and shook Sterner’s hand. It had been a joke, not a test — but he had passed regardless. The man introduced himself as FBI agent Tom Cottone. In the years that followed, the two became a team of “fraud busters,” exposing wannabes, who more often than not had other skeletons in their closet.
In late November 2004, someone e-mailed Sterner a news article about a man named Gilbert Velasquez, who claimed to be an Army Ranger who had fought in Somalia and Haiti, had killed Saddam Hussein’s sons, had captured Saddam himself, and had won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to boot. In the story, Velasquez said he had documents to prove everything, and even had a hunk of marble from Saddam’s palace.
Sterner and Cottone looked into the records, and sure enough, Velasquez was a fraud. But he could not be arrested and charged with fraud, since at the time federal law in this area applied only to people who wore medals they did not earn. Because Velasquez had only talked about the medals, he had violated no law. Sterner and Cottone fumed.
Hearing the loud, emotionally distraught venting session, Pam Sterner came into her husband’s office. At the time, she was a 47-year-old political-science major at Colorado State University in Pueblo, working on an assignment to write a public-policy paper on a law that wasn’t working or that ought to exist. At first she was peeved by the commotion — but her husband gave her an idea that would ultimately become the impetus for an intense debate, first on Capitol Hill and later at the Supreme Court.
For as long as there has been glory in combat, there have been fakers. America has dealt with them from the date of its founding: After establishing the award that would later become the Purple Heart, George Washington predicted that there would be those who made false claims, and said that fakers should be punished.
Wannabes appear throughout fiction both high and low. In The Great Gatsby, it’s implied that Jay Gatsby, the man who turned his life into a lie to win the affections of Daisy Buchanan, also lied about his war medals, supposedly won during World War I for his “valor at Montenegro.” In The Simpsons, straitlaced principal Seymour Skinner is outed as a fraud named Armand Tanzarian, a man who had taken the identity of a deceased friend who was a Vietnam vet. In Wedding Crashers, the two main characters outfit themselves with fake Purple Hearts to impress winsome bridesmaids.
Even Shakespeare made reference to fakers. In the speech that introduces the phrase “band of brothers,” Henry V speaks of how “gentlemen in England now-a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
As with real-life wannabes, common to these stories is the desire to belong, to be included in the glorification of war heroes. These wannabes often join local branches of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, where they share war stories over beers. Their ruses are sometimes incredibly elaborate, involving forgeries, planted evidence and years of lying to spouses, children and authentic veterans. In their book Fake Warriors, Henry and Erika Holzer estimate that 70 percent of these wannabes have low self-esteem, and only in 30 percent of cases do the liars seek a tangible benefit.
An award carries with it a certain credibility, one that can be tarnished by impostors — the way impostors can also cheapen a law diploma or an accountant certification. But unlike with those certifications, for the most part a veteran gains little that’s tangible from awards. “When we remember the blood, sweat, and tears that go into everything that makes up our uniforms, and all that we got from it was a strip of cloth or a shiny badge,” Adam Fenner, a Marine and National Guard vet, wrote on the This Ain’t Hell blog, “that is why we get so emotional about them.”
Watchdogs don’t buy the argument that lies about military service are a victimless crime. They believe wannabes hijack the legitimate accomplishments of war heroes, gain fraudulent medical care through the Veterans Administration, and blame crimes on false war experiences in a bid for leniency in the courts.
For people like B.G. Burkett, these phonies cheapen the name of entire generations of veterans. Burkett has been hunting wannabes for almost twenty years. He has worked as an expert consultant for prosecutors and has given lectures to FBI agents, government-fraud investigators and civic organizations. By his count, he has investigated more than 3,500 individuals, checking their records in his spare time and on nights and weekends.
Burkett grew up in a military family and served in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam, then came home and made his money in finance. But after reading one too many news stories about a mentally ill street person who was supposedly a Vietnam vet, he started fact-checking and then writing a book that he hoped would rehabilitate the image of the Vietnam vet. The self-published Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History, became a cult hit in military circles and won numerous awards, including a Colby Award for military history. It also gained Burkett a mighty ally in then-senator Jim Webb, a former Marine and Secretary of the Navy.
The book became an inspiration for many watchdogs. When Pam Sterner pitched her idea for a new law, she named it after the book that had been crucial to her research: Stolen Valor.
Pam Sterner earned an A on her paper calling for a law that would punish phony war heroes, but she wasn’t satisfied. She and her husband decided that there should be a law with which to punish military frauds, and they began talking about the idea with Colorado legislators. After they were unable to meet with then-representative Tom Tancredo, a Republican like themselves, they reached out to newly elected Democratic congressman John Salazar. He was a Vietnam vet, too, with a father, brother and son who had also served in the military. He eagerly took on the proposed bill, sponsoring what was now officially called the Stolen Valor Act.
Co-written by the Sterners and Cottone, the proposed law would allow any false verbal, written or physical claim to an award or decoration authorized for military members to be punished with up to six months in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000. Penalties would be doubled for infractions involving decorations specifically awarded for valor in combat, such as the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and the Medal of Honor.
Initially, the Stolen Valor Act had 36 co-sponsors, mostly “Blue Dog” Democrats like Salazar. But Wedding Crashers was in theaters at the time, and while some coverage wrongly assumed the bill was a response to the film, the silly media-coverage cycle increased the number of co-sponsors to 48.
After that, though, the effort ran into the partisan buzz saw of Congress. The Sterners lobbied constantly but were told not to get their hopes up. As Doug Sterner recounts in his book Restoring Valor: One Couple’s Mission to Expose Fraudulent War Heroes and Protect America’s Military Awards System, a prominent congressional staffer said that House Republicans could simply not allow a rookie Democrat in a vulnerable district to get credit for passing a major law during an election year. The bill languished.
The Sterners kept at it. Pam Sterner had experience lobbying, and she personally signed on then-senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania to the Senate version of the bill. She also approached the other Pennsylvania senator at the time, Arlen Specter, head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. She appealed to the pride that Specter had in his grandfather, who’d served in World War I; Specter took advantage of a Senate procedure to bring it to a vote, and it passed.
But the bill still needed to pass the House. The Sterners and other watchdogs appealed to the media. Whenever a wannabe was found, the Sterners and angry veterans’ groups would contact the representative of the wannabe’s district. Doug’s book details how, after a Navy Cross imposter gave a speech on Veterans Day, Pam called the office of his representative, Sam Graves of Missouri. Graves then pushed his colleague, Representative Roy Blunt, who eventually brought the Senate bill to a vote in the House.
On December 20, 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act into law. In two years, Pam and Doug Sterner had turned a class assignment into standing law.
Something didn’t seem right to Doug Sterner. It was February 2007, and he’d just read a profile in a Legion of Valor newsletter about an Arvada man named Raymond R. Sawyer; the piece talked about how the Marine had been awarded the Navy Cross for bravery in World War II. Under machine-gun fire in the battle for Okinawa, the article said, Sawyer had killed 37 enemy soldiers, preventing U.S. troops from being overrun.
Sterner began digging. Sure enough, Sawyer did not show up on the official lists of Marine Corps Navy Cross recipients. He found other telltale signs: The award citation was slightly different from official Navy Cross citations, and there were spelling errors. A man from Connecticut, where Sawyer had previously lived, forwarded another article showing that Sawyer had lied about the age at which he’d enlisted. To Sterner, these were all red flags.
Sterner summoned his network, fellow watchdogs whom he describes as being “in the loop.” The group includes Mary Schantag of the POW Network and Fake Warrior Project; author Burkett; Don Shipley, who runs a Navy SEAL database; the administrators of the This Ain’t Hell blog; and others. When a claim of stolen valor comes to their attention — usually through e-mails from veterans or ex-wives — these watchdogs dig in. They share information and, after the group has come to a consensus, expose the wannabe as loudly as possible.
The POW Network, for example, e-mails information about a wannabe to every nonprofit organization, church, veterans’ group, newspaper, radio and television station, courthouse, government office and law enforcement agency within a hundred miles of where an impostor lives. Some watchdogs call U.S. senators personally to inform them of impostors. Others shotgun faxes to companies where phonies work.
In the Sawyer case, Sterner asked Schantag to run through the military records. From her base in Skidmore, Missouri, Schantag submits dozens of FOIA requests every week. Military recordkeeping is a mess, but Schantag has an ability to find even the slipperiest of documents. In 1989, she and her late husband, Chuck, a former Marine, had unveiled a database documenting prisoners of war from Vietnam: the POW Network. The sheer volume of wannabes they found inspired Schantag to also create the Fake Warrior Project.
As he waited for records, Sterner enlisted the aid of Mike Sanborn, an FBI special agent and former Marine, in checking Marine Corps databases. The Stolen Valor Act had recently passed, and the FBI was now planning to crack down on wannabes. Sterner told Sanborn it would be great if the first bust under the Stolen Valor Act happened in Colorado, where the law got its start.
Schantag ran the records and found out that Sawyer was indeed a fraud: He had been in the Marines and received a Purple Heart, but the tale about the Navy Cross was phony. But Sawyer would not be the first Stolen Valor conviction. When FBI agents arrived at Sawyer’s door, he was gone. It turned out that Sawyer had gone to prison for murdering his wife and would soon die there.
Sawyer’s family wanted him buried in a military cemetery. As word of his lies got out, local veterans were outraged at having a fraud buried among real heroes. But the still-grieving family had excused Sawyer’s sins in light of his supposed heroism. They refused to believe the evidence, even as the Marine Honor Guard boycotted his burial. Sawyer was buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery, as was his right as a veteran, but his headstone says nothing about a Navy Cross. It simply lists his name and the fact that he was a veteran of World War II.
It tells the truth.
On July 23, 2007, during a water-district board meeting in Claremont, Califonia, Xavier “Javier” Alvarez claimed to have been awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. His lie was recorded and sent to the FBI.
Alvarez was charged and then convicted of violating the Stolen Valor Act.
Alvarez appealed the conviction, arguing that the Stolen Valor Act violated his freedom of speech, and his case was finally heard by the Supreme Court in 2012. Was there a constitutional right to lie? Amicus briefs reveal the issue’s fault lines. The American Legion, the Legion of Valor, the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation and attorneys general from twenty states argued that the Stolen Valor Act was crucial to preserving the integrity of military awards. On the other side, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Press and eight other media groups argued that judging the acceptability of speech by the social harm it might cause was not beneficial for society. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argued that it had not been proved that false representation diminishes an award. And the ACLU argued that there were less restrictive ways to preserve the status of awards, such as maintaining a searchable database. The law’s opponents warned that it could set a precedent for criminalizing such dishonest acts as posting puffed-up profile information on dating sites and false qualifications on résumés.
On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court released its decision. In a 6-3 split, the justices pointed out that Alvarez did not seek, nor did he receive, any tangible or material benefit for lying about the Medal of Honor. His words were simply a pathetic attempt to gain the respect that had eluded him, and as such, they were protected as pure speech, in the same category as the lies told at parties and on dates.
“The Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “Though few might find [Alvarez’s] statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment.”
A revised Stolen Valor Act passed in 2013. The new version, signed into law by President Barack Obama, did not include the provision outlawing false speech; it now only applied to false conduct. So while it was still a misdemeanor to wear false medals, phonies could not be charged for just talking about them.
Watchdogs worried that the relative weakness of the revised act would have a chilling effect. In many ways, Sterner said, the Stolen Valor community was now worse off than before the initial law had passed. Although the FBI was still swamped with Stolen Valor violations, few cases were actually going to be prosecuted. Some watchdogs worried that the number of wannabes would actually increase, since the fakers might think the Supreme Court had vindicated them.
And many watchdogs decided that they would have to mete out punishment themselves, using a weapon that had served them well before: public shame. “All that did,” says Fenner, “was put the onus from the legal authorities back onto the Stolen Valor community — one that enjoys the hunt.”
Another statement in the majority opinion authored by Kennedy seemed to justify their activities: “Truth needs neither handcuffs nor a badge for its vindication.”
Today, Stolen Valor claims have gone viral, and that worries legitimate watchdogs. Because not only have wannabe claims increased, but so have the efforts of watchdogs who are wannabes themselves, people who ape the efforts of the Sterners, Burkett and others in their network. In online forums and on social media, these copycats are characterized by their ferocity — but they lack the fastidiousness of the experienced watchdogs. Sites like This Ain’t Hell retain legal counsel, and Sterner and Burkett say they work to never, ever accuse falsely. (In an odd twist, Burkett himself was accused of stolen valor by a copycat, a charge that Burkett denies.)
James Worth has frequented online forums since the 1990s as a way to keep in contact with soldiers with similar experiences. For Worth, a paratrooper who went to Vietnam, online forums are a place to reunite and make new friends, and relationships online often manifest in real-life reunions and get-togethers. “After our service is done, we still need that kind of connection,” Worth explains. “If we find out that we have connected with someone on less-than-honest terms, it cheapens that relationship as a whole.”
But the forums themselves can be vicious, ugly places. Worth points to comments posted in the aftermath of a wannabe exposure: Opponents of the wannabe attacked him for lying; supporters of the wannabe defended their friend, who had gone to funerals with them. Opponents then attacked the wannabe’s friends for supporting him. The fight continued for days.
Sterner feels no elation in exposing the truth behind lies, no vindication, no satisfaction. All he feels, he says, is sorrow and a deep sense of frustration. Exposing wannabes is not what he wants to do; it’s a byproduct of his real mission. He works ten to twelve hours a day, seven days a week, transcribing awards citations. The bulk of his self-imposed quest is preserving the stories of real heroes, and he knows that there are so many records, he’ll die without finishing the task. But every so often he unearths amazing and true stories of heroism. Those are what make his efforts worthwhile.
“Doug is only an unwilling participant in hunting valor thieves,” says Jonn Lilyea, an Army veteran and the webmaster of This Ain’t Hell. “He would much rather just document the heroes, but he’s a valuable resource to those of us who hunt the thieves. Every time he thinks he’s out, we pull him back in.”
“Hell, yes, it bothers me,” Sterner says of exposing wannabes. “No one made me God to punish them and exact a pound of flesh.” Sterner knows that public humiliation can cause a wannabe, often elderly and frail, to lose a job or marriage. He has exposed friends and lost their friendship. He’s had people hate him, had people thank him. One man committed suicide.
Given those ramifications, he worries that the term “stolen valor” is being applied too broadly these days. It should be used only when someone actually lies about medals and valor, he says, as opposed to exaggerations. When Brian Williams recently apologized for false claims about the danger he had faced in Iraq, Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune called Sterner to talk about the situation. The columnist got a surprising response. “I have a headline for you,” Sterner told Page. “‘Stolen Valor hunter defends Brian Williams.’”
Representative Mike Coffman made a similar statement when Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald misspoke about his military service — after challenging Coffman’s own record. “The Secretary’s misstatement was an error, but it doesn’t dim the fact that he served honorably,” Coffman said in a statement released by his office.
Coffman, who says that Doug and Pam Sterner have been “relentless” on this issue, adds: “I think that when a military record is misrepresented, for purposes of receiving a financial benefit (i.e., a veteran’s preference for a government job or for falsely obtaining veterans’ benefits), there should be criminal prosecution. I don’t think there should be penalties imposed by the federal government for otherwise misrepresenting a military record.
“Often,” he explains, “people lie about having a military record, or embellishing one, because they desperately want recognition and to be respected by their community. That respect turns to humiliation after someone has been exposed for lying about a military record.”
That’s one reason that Doug Sterner and other watchdogs fear the hunt for fakers has led to online bullying. Some watchdogs believe that they have to police the community or politicians will decide to legislate them all out of existence. But many online copycats are Facebook groups in which like-minded young men share sexist jokes and bond over the shared glamour of the masculine warrior. As with wannabes, common to these copycats is the desire to belong, to be included in the glorification of war heroes. These groups, including the one that attacked Lowery, are repeatedly deleted by Facebook for their behavior.
“There seems to be any number of individuals who are eagerly looking for wannabes,” Sterner says. “Most do lack the experience and knowledge to properly verify information or to handle cases properly.... It is small-minded people trying to build themselves up by tearing others down.”
The people trying to tear down Lindsay Lowery went into her Army accounts and announced that there was no deployment record in her Army e-mail profile. They badgered her to the point that others became concerned. Lowery decided to contact an official watchdog group, the Guardians of Valor, placing her honor in their hands. But as it turned out, the Guardians of Valor were already looking into her case: Its website had received hundreds of e-mails requesting an investigation of Lowery.
On January 29, four days after that first Facebook post with Lowery’s photo, the Guardians of Valor revealed the result of that investigation. “To some this may be hard to believe, but we have confirmed and reconfirmed that she was the [platoon leader] for an Infantry unit while deployed to Iraq and was also in charge of the internment facility,” a post on the site said. “We also verified her [evaluations] for this time period, and they also confirm the above. From what we have read and seen, Cpt. Lowery has not embellished her service, nor has she lied about her assignments or commands.”
The Guardians of Valor then cautioned against making unwarranted attacks online, noting that situations like this are the reason that watchdogs take time to scrutinize accusations before going public.
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This vindication was a small comfort to Lowery, who believes that sexism played a role in the attack against her.
Lowery was not raised in a military family. She attended Cameron University in Oklahoma, where she majored in business and minored in military science, joining the ROTC and shocking her family. Lowery had always been a girly girl, wearing pink, her platinum-blonde hair in an outlandish haircut. She was commissioned in the Army in 2006 and spent eight years in the service before settling in Castle Rock. “Right now I’m a stay-at-home mom with an almost-three-year-old daughter and a five-month-old daughter, doing the journalism thing when I can in between taking care of them in my spare time,” she says.
But when the attack came, she decided that she had to take care of her name, too. The politically outspoken Lowery had been writing under a pen name, so her friends were stunned that she went to such great lengths to defend herself, even when it meant her real identity would be revealed. But like Sterner and the watchdogs, Lowery realizes that credibility is worth fighting for, sometimes bitterly. It is a matter of honor.
J.P. Lawrence is currently studying at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. A first-generation Filipino immigrant, he is a sergeant in the U.S. Army National Guard who deployed to southern Iraq in 2009 as a public-affairs soldier. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.