Should Faking Military Honors Be Illegal?

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Colorado Springs Police / AP

Richard Glen Strandlof, who has been charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act

The hefty bags of soiled war laundry currently being paraded for inspection all over the Internet may have topped the military's list of woes in the past few days, but WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is not the only person giving the armed forces the collywobbles right now. There's also Richard Glen Strandlof.

When Strandlof first came to prominence, it was as Rick Duncan, a Colorado-based veterans-rights activist and local hero. A decorated Marine who was at the Pentagon on 9/11 and was later wounded in Iraq, Duncan had been a prominent fighter for homeless vets. But after months as a fixture in the media and in local-election campaigns, he was publicly unmasked in 2009 as neither a Duncan nor a veteran, but rather a small-ball crook from Montana who had done no stretches in Iraq but had served two in county jail.

Strandlof, it seems, didn't seek to gain anything by masquerading as a veteran, except respect. Still, that's an offense under the Stolen Valor Act of 2006, which makes it a crime punishable by up to six months in prison or a $10,000 fine to falsely claim to have been awarded military honors and medals — in this case, a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.

The number of veterans in America is growing, while the universal and age-old temptation to elevate one's achievements is ever present, so there's quite a lot of valor-stealing going on. In April, Damien Pace, 22, of Stamford, Conn., was arrested for wearing a Special Forces uniform adorned with ribbons and tabs. He said he just wanted to "look cool" at his paramedic training class. Just last week, Sergeant Major Stoney N. Crump, one of the most senior non-commissioned officers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was fired for overstating his achievements and wearing unearned medals. And there's the case of Mark Mulcahy, a VFW Post commander, who pleaded guilty to identity theft in 2009 after masquerading as a veteran to get free health care and embroidering that soldier's service record.

On July 16, however, a judge in Colorado dismissed Strandlof's case, saying the Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional on free-speech grounds, just as prohibitions on burning the flag or selling photos of animal cruelty are. Judge Robert Blackburn rejected the government's reasons for restricting that kind of speech, including the argument that it led to less-brave armed forces. "To suggest that the battlefield heroism of our servicemen and women is motivated in any way, let alone in a compelling way, by considerations of whether a medal may be awarded simply defies my comprehension," he wrote.

The ruling sparked a passionate debate among civil libertarians and legal experts. On the one hand, folks argued, the statute is too broad: it makes a crime of the lie, whether or not the alleged valor stealer materially harmed anyone. Arresting guys who do this is like arresting the bloke in a bar on Friday night who says he's going to marry Megan Fox. Even if nobody can verify at the time that she's already married to Brian Austin Green (shocking as that may be in itself), where is the criminality in the act, as long as the barfly doesn't set up a wedding registry and start accepting gifts?

Others maintain that it's more like counterfeiting. If you print up a bunch of money and only intend to use it to make games of poker with your kids more compelling, you can still be arrested. Just as counterfeit money cheapens the value of real money, invented medals cheapen the value of real honors. And they disagree with the judge about the power of the medals. A soldier will fight long and hard, said Napoleon, for a bit of colored ribbon. What will he do if anyone can have that?

Nobody thinks claiming to have medals you didn't earn is a noble act. Medals cost their genuine recipients dearly, paid for with lives, limbs, friends, mental health. But is the law really the best instrument for meting out justice in this instance? We already have a far more effective means of bringing the hammer down upon those who try to butt the heroism line. We use it every day on erring celebrities and cheating politicians. Public shaming is pretty much what the Internet was invented for.

Armed with little more than laptops and outrage, the citizenry and bloggerdom will gladly punish the valor thieves to the satisfaction, and possibly even pity, of the most outraged veteran. Just ask Mel Gibson which he'd prefer: a quiet court-martial or more

If only it were possible to keep a searchable list somewhere, say, on the Internet, of all the people who had won medals of any kind. Then the liars could be caught while their fibs were still harmless. Nobody's valor could be stolen, or even borrowed. The Department of Defense says that idea's a nonstarter, though, because legal restrictions on the release of personal information would "severely limit the utility of the database." Too many Smiths, Johnsons and Garcias have served to be able to catch the fake ones.

Secrecy is a tricky business, especially when there are compelling reasons for information to come out. And as the brass is learning the hard way, when information really wants to be free, there's a guy at WikiLeaks who can help.