Legally Speaking: When valor is stolen

As we prepare to remember America's veterans, take a moment to honor some of the greatest in our nation's pantheon of heroes: Sgt. Alvin York, Audie Murphy, David McClanahan ... David McClanahan?

If you did a double take of that last name, you're not alone.

For years, David McClanahan told anyone who would listen about his heroic exploits in winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, three Silver Stars, three Purple Hearts, and the Legion of Merit. He professed to have served in both the U.S. Army's Special Forces and the U.S. Navy SEALS, and to have been a POW. There was just one problem: none of it was true.

Last week McClanahan achieved one distinction – he became one of the first individuals prosecuted under a relatively new federal law, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 (signed into law by President Bush in December 2006). The Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime to falsely claim to be a decorated military veteran, punishable by up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. The penalties are doubled if the claim involves the Distinguished Service Cross, Air Force Cross, Navy Cross, Silver Star, or Purple Heart.

The law, which was introduced by U.S. Rep. John Salazar of Colorado, expands the scope of pre-existing law, which only criminalized unauthorized wearing of the Congressional Medal of Honor (our nation's highest award for valor). McClanahan, who was facing up to 31 years in prison and up to $1.1 million in fines, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 34 months in federal prison by U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson.

McClanahan had actually served in the military, with a hitch in the Navy from January 1999 to May 2001, followed by a stint in the Army from 2001 to 2005. However, his only overseas duty came in South Korea, and he was ultimately jailed, reduced in rank and given a "less than honorable" discharge from the Army for wearing unauthorized awards and badges.

A 1997 graduate of Cal Farley's Boys Ranch, McClanahan returned to Amarillo in 2006 spinning yarns of battlefield heroism that moved audiences at schools and civic groups to tears. Wearing a uniform full of medals he bought online through Ebay and military surplus stores, McClanahan used his ever-more outlandish lies to line his pockets.

He received $9,500 in scholarship money, thousands more in donations, and tried to pressure a local Ford dealer into giving him a car. When the dealer refused, McClanahan "grossly inflated" his income on an auto loan application -- a move that would lead to other legal charges.

McClanahan became entangled in his own web of lies -- in one forged Medal of Honor nomination letter, he claimed to have charged 180 meters up a hill, killed 12 Iraqis and been taken prisoner only to later escape with nine other Green Berets, killing eight of his captors in the process. The ersatz warrior may have been watched one too many Rambo movies, but he didn't pay much attention to detail: one of his Medal of Honor nomination letters purported to be from President Bush, but it was "signed" by the wrong one- George H. W. Bush, the President's father. Oops!

If you think that a fraud like David McClanahan is a rarity, think again. According to FBI agent Mike Sanborn, since the new law went into effect, between 600 and 700 violators have been identified -- and those are just the most extreme cases. Moreover, while many of these individuals have falsified their claims of heroism as part of schemes to collect school tuition, medical, or disability benefits to which they're not entitled, others have perpetrated these cons to prey on an unsuspecting general public.

A widow and Veterans Administration employee at Bay Pines VA Medical Center in Florida was allegedly bilked out of $45,000 by Lawrence Hammer, who falsified records and claimed to be an ex-Navy SEAL who had won the Medal of Honor for exploits in Vietnam.

Reggie Buddle of Washington state was sentenced this past summer to two years probation and 500 hours of community service for illegally posing as a decorated Marine Corps chaplain and presiding over weddings, funerals, and baptisms.

John Eastman of New Galilee, Pa., regularly appeared before civic organizations and veterans groups claiming to have been – depending on the audience -- a Marine major, a Navy SEAL, a sniper, and a pilot. He would hand out business cards bearing his self-given nickname "The Terminator" and boasting of having won the Navy Cross (the second-highest medal in the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard).

However, when he decided to tell his tall tales before an overwhelmingly military audience at the Soldiers & Sailors National Military Museum and Memorial, he was busted. Ron Gancas, the museum's president, observed "He had more battle activity than eight guys put together. Why he picked this place to [lie] I don't know. Everybody was in the military here."

The ranks of these fake heroes aren't just the down and out. They include a CEO, a mayor, at least one police chief, and even a judge. For years, Illinois District Judge Michael O' Brien displayed not one but two Medals of Honor in a framed case in his chambers. People around the courthouse, not to mention the residents of his city, were convinced that in their midst was not only a leading pillar of the legal community, but one of America's greatest heroes.

That is, until Judge O'Brien applied for Medal of Honor License plates from Illinois' Department of Motor Vehicles. A skeptical DMV employee contacted an actual Medal of Honor recipient, and the judge's lies were soon exposed. One clue might have been the fact that there are only 111 living Medal of Honor recipients, and there have only been 18 dual winners in U.S. history.

O'Brien isn't one of them, but his public disgrace could have been far worse: his fraud was discovered before the Stolen Valor Act took effect, at a time when the only law on the books criminalized the wearing, manufacturing, buying, selling, or trading the Medal of Honor. O'Brien couldn't be prosecuted under federal law because, at the time, it wasn't a criminal offense to possess or display the distinction on one's wall.

Another phony hero who betrayed a trusting public is J.C. Ortiz, who for years attended veterans affairs, offered comfort to grieving families and spoke at community events throughout the Rio Grande Valley. Ortiz claimed to have risen to the rank of sergeant major in the U.S. Marine Corps after serving 39 years in the armed forces, including four tours of duty in Vietnam.

His "fruit salad" (the military slang for the award ribbons on a soldier's chest) included seven Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and other decorations that he bought online or at military surplus stores. His multiple sets of paratrooper's wings raised suspicions, especially when he claimed to have attended a Marine parachute training school (the Marines don't have one).

Ortiz even received the "Spirit of Freedom Award" from the McAllen Monitor for his service in uniform. Ironically, it was that some newspaper whose investigation later revealed Ortiz' fraudulent past, after fellow veterans expressed doubts about his exploits.

As the story unraveled, J.C. Ortiz was shown to have been born Gerrold Jerome Bowman, a ne'er do well whose military career lasted all of three-and-a-half years before receiving an "undesirable" discharge in 1962 as a Marine private for going AWOL (absent without leave).

Sadly, cases like these are just the tip of the iceberg. Local journalist Glenna Whitley and Plano resident and veteran B.G. Burkett wrote the award-winning book Stolen Valor several years ago, first exposing the prevalence of such military imposters and providing the impetus for changing the law in this area.

And while not every fake hero does it for financial gain, it can hardly be called a victimless crime. As Tony Cottone, a New Jersey FBI agent who has investigated such frauds for over a decade, points out "They're doing it to garner unearned respect and dignity based on their 'heroic' military exploits. These people are literally stealing the valor of people who really did it, and they're taking advantage of the trust of the American people."

One judge in Saginaw, Mich., recently found a way to implement some poetic justice. Philip Kolinski pleaded guilty to taking part in a scam in which he solicited scrap metal donations – ostensibly for a military memorial to those who have fallen in Iraq – but actually sold the metal and pocketed the proceeds. After ordering Kolinski to pay $9,000 in restitution and $2,095 in fees and fines, Judge A.T. Frank added something else. He ordered Kolinski to clean a local veterans' memorial with a toothbrush, while wearing a placard saying "I stole from veterans."

The Stolen Valor Act should remind us, not just this Veterans Day, but everyday, that the brave individuals who have earned distinction in service to our country should not have these honors tarnished by frauds.

When you take part in your daily activities (even something as mundane as reading this column), remember that you have the freedom to do because of what has been guaranteed by countless veterans throughout our history.

When you go to sleep at night, remember that you are sleeping beneath the blanket of protection that these veterans have provided, not just the veterans you may meet but those who never made it back to receive the thanks of a grateful nation.

More Stories