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Stolen Valor – Is it criminal or just lying?

How to Check Someone’s Claims of Military Service, Honors and Medals

Here’s how the Stolen Valor project describes it: “It starts off simple enough. A casual mention of military service. And, oh by the way, a Purple Heart and a few other honors earned. How can you not trust a man who served his country so gallantly? “From there, confidence builds, one story weaves into even more glorious tales until, at some point, the fabrication is woven so tightly you begin to suspect. How can one person achieve so much in such a short time? It’s almost too good to be true.” http://www.stolenvalor.com/index.cfm

I’ve been a trial lawyer for over 30 years. I started my career in Houston (after a brief stint in Amarillo) in the early 80’s, the “Golden Age” of personal injury law. I was raised by good, honest hardworking people, and I have to say that was amazed to learn how many people would not only lie, but lie under oath under penalty of perjury. And it’s not just blue collar workers; sometimes it seems that the biggest whoppers come from the most educated, successful people.

A recent example of a lying plaintiff in a case I defended is a businessman/wheeler dealer with millions of dollars and a Harvard MBA who retired to his “game ranch” outside Kerrville. I took his deposition in a civil lawsuit where he sued my client, whom he accused of being dishonest in their business dealings. As they say, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

We’ll call him Mr. Smith. My client told me that Mr. Smith was going to be hard to discredit because of his military record – flew helicopters in Vietnam for a year, retired as a full colonel from the Army Reserves where he had posts in intelligence and civil affairs (this covered the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan).

When I took his deposition on video he added to that resume – he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in Vietnam and even described what he did to merit it: flew in under heavy fire to rescue a South Vietnamese Army officer and his radioman. I wondered how he did that flying an OH-60 scout helicopter, but he said he also flew Hueys there. Ooookay……He told me the unit he flew with and the call sign and so on. Very detailed.

He claimed to be a “highly decorated Vietnam veteran” and helicopter pilot in biographies contained in prospectuses and annual reports of publicly traded companies. In Who’s Who, he claimed that in addition to the DFC, he received a Purple Heart, several Air Medals, and a Bronze Star or two. He showed up at Memorial Day celebrations in a uniform with a cavalry officer’s hat with gold braid (which my military friends tell me is only worn by generals). He even wore patent leather shoes with built in spurs, which he claimed was a tradition started by General Armstrong Custer. It was all fiction. His four months of active duty was basic training for the Connecticut National Guard, his MOS was Field Wireman (telephone installer-repairman), and his highest rank was private.

Here’s how I found the truth. I started with the Stolen Valor website at http://www.stolenvalor.com.

That led to http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/, The National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records (NPRC-MPR). It has forms, instructions, and addresses to obtain military records from all branches of the service, both active duty and Reserves. For National Guard records, you have to contact the Adjutant General for the state where he served. A few weeks after I sent my request for his active duty records a nice lady called and told me that Mr. Smith had been in the Army for about four months, then gone into the Conn. National Guard. I then received a letter confirming that our hero had been on active duty in the Army for four months. It’s very basic – no rank, place of service, MOS, etc. But it did confirm that he could not have flown helicopters in Viet Nam for a year.

Update: A reader emailed me that you need to send, with the form request, a Freedom of Information Act request to the NPRC and/or other agencies requesting all public information on the subject. They are required to produce rank, place of service, MOS, and duty stations. Do it by certified mail/return receipt requested. The NPRC website says you can get the following:

FOIA and Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF)

The public has access to certain military service information without the veteran’s authorization or that of the next-of-kin (the un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother or sister) of deceased veterans. Examples of information which may be available from Federal (non-archival) Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) without an unwarranted invasion of privacy include:

FOIA and Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF)

The public has access to certain military service information without the veteran’s authorization or that of the next-of-kin (the un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother or sister) of deceased veterans. Examples of information which may be available from Federal (non-archival) Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) without an unwarranted invasion of privacy include:

  • Name
  • Service Number
  • Dates of Service
  • Branch of Service
  • Final Duty Status
  • Final Rank
  • Salary *
  • Assignments and Geographical Locations
  • Source of Commission *
  • Military Education Level
  • Promotion Sequence Number *
  • Awards and decorations (eligibility only, not actual medals)
  • Photograph
  • Transcript of Courts-Martial Trials
  • Place of entrance and separation

If you just send the form they won’t produce the details.

Now, back to the story of Mr. Smith (whose real name is Herbert Clarke Williamson III, 63 years old, Kerrville, Texas). Unfortunately for Mr. Smith, Kerrville has a lot of retirees who really did serve their country and I found one who was the real deal – flew Scouts for a year in Nam, then came back to the US and was a pilot instructor. He reviewed my file and told me that Mr. Smith was a fraud. The unit he claimed he was in wore gray cav hats, not blue. Their call sign was not the one our hero claimed. The unit was stationed at Camp Eagle in the northern part of the country when he said he was flying with them hundreds of miles to the south. In his application for membership in the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, he claimed he was in a flight class that was for commissioned officers only, when he testified in the deposition that he was a warrant officer. The unit he claimed he flew with didn’t fly the OH60 when he claimed he was there. And so on.

I contacted the gentleman who vets applicants for the Association, who called our hero, who refused to provide documentation of his exploits, and he was kicked out. Any veteran should be able to produce a DD-214 form, which shows dates of service, ranks, citations, posts and so on. Be careful though, as these can be counterfeited.

The Military Times has an online database of legitimate recipients of medals at http://www.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/search.php. You can enter your hero’s name and see if it comes up. In my case, Mr. Smith’s did not.

Years ago I almost hired a young man whose resume claimed that he had been a medic who broke his back when his helicopter was shot down. It was bull—- but I almost fell for it. Anyone who would lie like that is probably enough of a sociopath to be charming and appear sincere.

I hope this is helpful to employers, lawyers, and people thinking of marrying someone claiming to be a combat vet.