The Collegian
Wednesday, September 28, 2022

A case for harsher prosecutions in instances of Stolen Valor.

How much will a paper University of Richmond diploma be worth to you? A degree from the University of Richmond is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but what is the value of the actual piece of paper the class of 2015 will receive on graduation day? If you add up the monetary costs of a diploma design, printer ink and paper, the price comes out to around eleven cents.

What about the cost of a patch pinned on a US Military uniform? It costs about the same as your diploma, though each signifies something different. In each case, you have the right to claim your accomplishments. Just like your graduation papers, a patch is symbolic of time and effort.

Why would anyone pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a piece of paper or risk their life for a symbolic object? The answer is honor. When you hang your diploma on the wall of your first job, you are presenting who you are and what you’ve accomplished to whoever enters that room. Something similar can be said of those who pin the Ranger tab on their shoulders for the first time.

When you bold “University of Richmond, Class of 2015” on the first line of your perfectly formatted resume next year, people will recognize your achievements. Who would lie about such a significant achievement? Well, as a matter of fact, people do lie about these things. Similarly, people also lie about military achievements.

You may be asking yourself: Are these lying, deceptive actions legal? Unfortunately, they are. Most likely, you won’t have to worry about some uneducated fool out on the street claiming to have been your lab partner in freshman Biology class. However, there are men and women in the United States who falsely claim to have fought in a foxhole in one or more of our nation’s wars.

In most situations, this person did fight for our country, but you may be surprised that it is not illegal to wear a U.S. Military uniform or to claim the honors associated with it. According to the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, it is only illegal to falsely portray yourself as a military member for personal profit. Just about anyone can pin the Medal of Honor on a fake uniform, as long as you don't walk into a store and try to take advantage of their military discount.

The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 is actually the second of two Stolen Valor Acts. The first was passed in 2005 and punishes any false claims about military service. It’s relatively straightforward and states that if an imposter is wearing a military award of any kind, they are breaking the law. The 2013 revision is more lenient. Within the law it states that if an imposter is trying to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit then they are breaking the law. Money can be represented with something as simple as a military benefit.

Recently, Brian Williams, a famous news anchor on the NBC Nightly News, told multiple lies about his war reporting experiences over a series of years. I do not know if he should be prosecuted from his series of fictitious stories, but I believe that he profited from these farces. Employers pay premiums for exceptional experiences; experience that Williams claimed to have lived but in reality did not. Premiums are tangible benefits. Williams is a recent, prominent example of violations that happen far too frequently.

So why was the 2005 law changed in the first place? In June of 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that lying about military service was constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, which dictates freedom of speech. Among others, William “Bill” Hillar of Maryland exemplifies the root cause for the law change. Hillar spent years claiming that he was a Special Forces soldier who fought with a specialty in human trafficking and counter-terrorism. He was paid to teach classes at local Maryland Universities and local police forces paid to hear his rants. He further claimed to have gone on a one-man search for his daughter who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Sound familiar? Hillar claims to be the basis for the popular 2008 film “Taken” starring Liam Neeson. “Bill” is now serving a sentence of 21 months in federal prison for a wire fraud charge.

Would it be freedom of speech to say that I graduated from the University of Richmond when in fact I have not? I argue that there is a tangible benefit from falsely claiming that you fought in the military in any way, shape or form. Military service allows rightful veterans access to jobs, just like a diploma from the University of Richmond. When an imposter takes credit for the actions of another, veterans are disrespected and, to a degree, discredited.

It is people like Hillar and Williams that dilute the weight of earned accomplishments. Saying or acting as if you earned something that you did not is no longer illegal but I believe that it is morally wrong. Men and women risk their lives to wear a uniform. Honor is the moral value that separates the people who work for their claims from the ones who claim after no work. Honor is something that many Americans hold high among their arsenal of personal values while others hold personal profits higher. What does honor mean to you?

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