Kentucky voices: Court must reject fake heroes, uphold valor

During the 1980s, I was assigned as a media spokesperson at Marine Corps Headquarters in Arlington, Va. In that capacity, I occasionally received queries from reporters about individuals who claimed to have served as Marines who had been decorated for combat.

In most cases, those individuals were either seeking elected office or were under consideration for appointment to a public position. Some of these supposed veterans attended public events wearing rank, insignia and medals.

More often than not, the reporter's suspicions were borne out by the archives at the Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Either there was no record of service or the person's highest rank and awards were greatly exaggerated. Some of these people were discharged under less than honorable conditions.

Even facing the threat of lawsuit by the persons in question, I released the information to journalists with no small measure of satisfaction. After all, if a person is so audacious as to lie about his military service, he would probably not be trustworthy in public service.

George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley implies in The Washington Post, reprinted in the Herald-Leader ("Our right to tell a lie," Feb. 22), that the Stolen Valor Act criminalizing this behavior that will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court should be overturned as a threat to the First Amendment.

Turley defends the logic that fraudulent misrepresentations of military service should not be prosecuted "solely because they are lies." Lies, he contends, not without some legal precedent, should be protected as free speech as much as true statements.

I earned graduate degrees in journalism and communication, and I strongly support the preservation of freedom of speech, not only as legal protection under the Bill of Rights but also as the hallowed privilege of U.S. citizens to freely criticize our government and society. But Turley likens the duplicity of these faux veterans to singers performing "bad karaoke." I wonder how he would regard a fellow professor who had published an article claiming a scientific discovery based on fabricated data. A poet committing doggerel?

Some opponents of the Stolen Valor Act believe with logic that exposure of fake heroes and subsequent public censure should be punishment enough. Yet, the fear of embarrassment has not deterred hundreds of counterfeit Sgt. Yorks from draping themselves in the sham of valor.

Maintaining this law's criminalization of patriotic chicanery may curb hoaxes such as that perpetrated by Xavier Alvarez, whose case will be heard by the Supreme Court, from attempting to leverage contrived military achievement to reach public office.

Of greater import, I hope that the justices realize that the Stolen Valor Act should be upheld for the higher purpose of venerating the courage and service of the millions of men and women who have earned the right to claim to be heroes, though most veterans I know would be too modest to make such self-serving proclamations.