Stolen Valor

Updated: November 3, 2022
In this Article

    What is stolen valor? There are many examples but the basic definition includes the act of falsely claiming military service, falsely claiming a certain rank which was not earned, and can also include the wear or claim of certain military awards or decorations that were never actually awarded.

    Examples Of Stolen Valor

    Some stolen valor cases involve people claiming to have served in combat–often the fraud comes by claiming an award of the Purple Heart, Medal of Honor or other highly prestigious recognition.

    Others come when someone tries to claim an association with a combat unit, military operation, or even a famous name involved in a military campaign or deployment. One possible example was reported by The Atlantic, which briefly chronicled the attempts of an entrepreneur who attempted to claim he served in uniform with the late founder of the Army Delta Force.

    The Atlantic reports “His story might well be true, but….” such claims arouse the ire of those in the military community if/when proven false.

    One example sometimes used to describe what stolen valor is appears to be a brazen attempt to claim awards for valor that may not have been authorized–Navy Admiral Mike Boorda died by suicide after a revelation that he wore two “V” (for valor) devices on service ribbons that his military records did not reflect. But it is crucial to get the whole story.

    In this particular case, the “stolen valor” may have been unintentional–Boorda may have been “verbally authorized” by the then-Chief of Naval Operations (at the time of the Vietnam war) to wear them.

    However, written authorization is required in many cases and Boorda’s wear of the decorations may have been a mistake, misunderstanding or there may have been a written authorization promised but not delivered.

    It’s a sad example of the care which must be taken when assigning the term “stolen valor,” since the full story should be known and understood before such judgments are made.


    Telltale Signs Of Stolen Valor

    How can someone with or without military experience tell the difference between a legitimate claim and stolen valor? It’s not always easy to do and without additional information it may be hard to tell where the truth ends and falsehoods begin.

    But those who choose to exaggerate or lie about military service often make the same kinds of mistakes as those who have lied about serving before them.

    What kinds of mistakes?

    One of the most obvious is making a claim about serving that the person cannot describe in detail. For example–some who were deployed to Iraq may or may not have served in the “Green Zone” in Baghdad. Anyone who did serve there likely knows more details than someone who did not.

    For example–some sources report the Green Zone was the “common name” referencing the International Zone of Baghdad, which was just under four square miles in the Karkh district. Does the person claiming service in such an area know what district the Green Zone was located in?

    Other attempts to claim false service can include obvious mistakes about the nature of duty. You wouldn’t take “shore leave” as a ground-based soldier, and you can’t be a lawyer in the U.S. military as an enlisted person. Those mistakes are easy to make when you never served, or barely served.

    Some will claim to have served in elite units and have “secret military records.” This is a classic example of an unverifiable claim and as such these are usually viewed with suspicion. Others will claim to have served “during the war” and let people draw their own conclusions about what that means.

    Serving during wartime is not the same as serving in a hostile fire zone. There are plenty of veterans who serve during times of conflict but who do not actually participate in live fire.


    Stolen Valor: It’s Not A Crime?

    In 2005, a Stolen Valor Act signed into law by then President George W. Bush made it illegal for people to falsely represent themselves “as having been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces or any of the service medals or badges.”

    The federal law, as written, would up the ante for violations that include a Distinguished Service Cross, Air Force Cross, Navy Cross, Silver Star or Purple Heart.

    But this law was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the law as written was too broad–lying in and of itself is not a crime. And so the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 as it was written was declared unconstitutional in 2012. Before the Supreme Court saw the case, it had been challenged in lower court cases including United States v. Strandlof, and United States v. Alvarez.

    When the case made it to the Supreme Court, the decision was 6-3 with dissenting Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito differing from the majority opinion that the Stolen Valor Act was an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech under the First Amendment.


    Stolen Valor: It’s Still A Crime

    The overturned Stolen Valor Act of 2005 was killed on a technicality–the law was too broad and as such was viewed to make lying itself a crime. So when a new Stolen Valor Act was signed into law in 2013 by then President Barack Obama, the wording of the law was changed to be more specific.

    The 2013 law targets the intent of the person making the false claims. Under the 2013 law, it is a violation of federal law for someone to falsely claim military service, awards and decorations or “embellished rank.” But what makes this a crime? The intent to get money, property or some other benefit by making the false claim.

    The 2013 law identifies several specific military awards that it is illegal to claim with intent to gain benefits by doing so. They include:

    • Medal of Honor
    • Distinguished Service Cross
    • Navy Cross
    • Air Force Cross
    • Silver Star
    • Bronze Star
    • Purple Heart
    • Combat Action Ribbon
    • Combat Infantryman’s Badge
    • Combat Action Badge
    • Combat Medical Badge
    • Combat Action Medal
    • Replacement or duplicate medals “for such medal as authorized by law”

    The penalties for stolen valor under the 2013 act can include fines and/or up to six months imprisonment.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team