Ky. Voices: New Stolen Valor law balances respect for military, justice

Last month, board members of the Korean War Veterans Association of America asked its president to resign for wearing military decorations that were not his.

James E. Ferris, 81, a Marine veteran, admitted that the medals had been issued to his brother. He had worn them at ceremonies attended by both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

The incident embarrassed the organization as it embarks on a series of events beginning next month to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of that war.

Ferris' offense to veterans was far less egregious than that of Xavier Alvarez, whose conviction under the Stolen Valor Act for wearing a Medal of Honor he claimed to have received for valor in Vietnam was overturned last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.

The court decided that claims to military distinction, however false, were protected as free speech, and the law was struck from the books.

After the court's decision I wrote a commentary suggesting that Congress revisit the issue of punishing charlatans for exaggerated military service claims without endangering our constitutional rights to express ourselves freely. These con artists insult our millions of legitimate veterans, and some have leveraged false credits as heroes for financial or political gain.

Last month, in a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress passed, with near-unanimity, a bill for a new Stolen Valor Act that was signed into law by Obama on June 3.

The bill was crafted by U.S. Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) and endorsed by veterans organizations.

The new act is narrower in scope than the law rejected by the court, but it skirts the First Amendment issue by focusing punishment on those who materially benefit from charading as military heroes, making such offenses a crime.

For example, cheaters who lie about their military service to obtain veterans' benefits, land a government contract, or seek public office may be prosecuted under the new law.

On the other hand, people like Ferris who falsely claim military distinction presumably for self-aggrandizement rather than material gain will go unpunished by the courts. But perhaps the new law will impose added stigmatization of stolen valor that will deter some phonies from impugning our legitimate heroes.

Posing as a decorated veteran might strike those who have never served in a military uniform as no more contemptuous than wearing a cap and gown to a Halloween party might seem to a professor. But for those of us who have served, and particularly those who have faced combat, military imposters blaspheme the achievements of true heroes.

Last July, Sen. James Webb, D-Va., said on the Senate floor following the Supreme Court's decision on the previous law, "It is important to understand the impact that military service can have on one's life in order to comprehend what a disservice it is for others to pretend to have served. Once you have been in hard combat, you will never see life around you in the same way again."