Monday, December 8, 2014
Bucks military, lawmakers: Restrict access to military combat honors
Posted: Monday, December 8, 2014
The story of a Philadelphia man pretending to be a highly decorated U.S. Army Ranger is a familiar one to Anthony Anderson.
The South Carolina Army veteran runs Guardians of Valor, a group dedicated to exposing individuals who falsely claim military service and unauthorized medals or other awards, so called “Stolen Valor.” The group was the first to post on YouTube the now infamous video shot by Northampton Army veteran Sgt. Ryan Berk of his Nov. 28 confrontation with Sean Yetman at the Oxford Valley Mall in Middletown. It has since amassed more than 3 million views and countless re-postings across social media.
The organization operates a website on which people can report suspected imposters; it includes a “Hall of Shame,” which features photos and news accounts of 48 confirmed military imposters or embellishers.
“I’ve been doing this for five years now, and it’s only gotten worse,” Anderson said.
The reason is simple, according to Anderson and other veteran and military supporters. Impersonating a military member — even a highly decorated one — is easy. It’s even easier than getting a Bucks County veteran discount card.
Anderson believes that a stronger federal law is needed, one that carries the same penalties as impersonating a police officer.
“I believe that it is something that will never stop; the military is always selling surplus,” he said. “Strengthening the Stolen Valor Law is the only thing that’s going to curtail it.”
Sean Schafer, policy director for state Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-6, Bensalem, and Dan Fraley, Bucks County’s director of Veterans Affairs, agree. They plan to do something about it, too.
Schafer pointed out that civilians may treat perceived military members differently based on their appearance. He is investigating possible legislation to restrict sales of military honors to civilians in Pennsylvania.
“If we forbid stolen valor, why do we allow people to sell stolen valor?” Schafer added.
Currently there are no regulations on the sale of military items such as the 30 or so military ribbons, badges and awards, including those awarded for valor. That means authentic military uniforms, badges, medals and other military accessories including Purple Hearts and Silver Stars are sold in surplus Army/Navy stores and online. Good replica awards are enough to fool most civilians, military officials said.
Falsely claiming to be a member of the military is not illegal, but it’s against federal law for an individual to fraudulently portray him or herself as a recipient of any of 11 specified military decorations or medals with the intent to obtain money, property or other “tangible” benefit.
Fraley has an idea that he believes dovetails with the federal Stolen Valor Act — restrict access to the military honors covered in the law to military members.
Fraley’s idea would require veterans or military members to show proof of their military service and decorations and honors earned, such as a Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, generally referred to as a DD214 or other form of military identification.
Bucks County does that for its veterans discount ID card. Veterans who want to get the card, which can be used in many businesses, submit a copy of their DD214 as verification of their military service, Fraley said.
To address the problem with online sales, Fraley proposes banning the online sales of all 11 awards listed in the Stolen Valor Act of 2013. Right now, it’s illegal to buy only a Medal of Honor online or elsewhere. The honors named in the law include a Combat Infantrymen Badge, which Yetmen claimed he earned three times, as well as the Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross and various combat awards.
“All you are doing is expanding the ban. No one is going to go broke not selling those items online if they’re a legitimate business,” Fraley said. “It would marry into the law. It really makes sense and cures the problem.”
Middletown police and a U.S. Army investigator are reviewing all available mall store video footage to determine if Yetman committed a crime, such as requesting a military discount, while wearing the uniform. As of Friday, Middletown Chief Joseph Bartorilla said there was no update on the investigation findings.
Military sources have confirmed there is no record of Yetman — who claimed to earn three Combat Infantrymen Badges, a rare accomplishment — serving in the U.S. Army in any capacity or undergoing Ranger training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
No official numbers exist, but Anderson estimated that he investigates reports of about 20 cases a week of alleged Stolen Valor incidents ranging from civilians trying to pass themselves off as military members or veterans to actual soldiers embellishing their honors.
Last month, a 23-year-old man was charged in western Pennsylvania with impersonating a public servant and disorderly conduct after he showed up unannounced at a middle school claiming he was a military veteran who wanted to talk to kids about Veterans Day, according to published reports. Jonathan Campbell told school officials he served in the Army, but he was wearing a U.S. Air Force uniform, they said. He was denied access and escorted off the property. Officials said there is no record of him serving in the military.
In October, a Democratic congressional candidate in California apologized and admitted he wore a U.S. Navy SEAL Trident for a year without ever earning it, according to published reports. The award is among the most coveted in the U.S. military, and may be worn only by those officers and enlisted men who have completed training.
Under Pennsylvania law, it is a summary offense to wear a uniform, decoration insignia or other distinctive emblems of any branch of the U.S. armed forces to obtain aid, profit or while soliciting contributions or subscriptions. It is also a summary offense to, without authority, knowingly wear, exhibit, display or use any military or veteran insignia.
Also, it is a third-degree misdemeanor in the state if a person, without authority, purchases, sells, offers for sale or accepts as a “pledge or pawn,” any medal, insignia or decoration granted for service in the armed forces.
What is unclear is how the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down part of the original Stolen Valor law impacts enforcement of the state laws, said Schafer, from Tomlinson’s office. The high court ruling found that merely impersonating a military member was protected under the First Amendment Right to Free Speech and Freedom of Expression.