The federal government failed us all on June 28th, and in more ways than one. Days before Americans celebrated the anniversary of our nation’s hard-fought independence, the Supreme Court of the United States declared unconstitutional the Stolen Valor Act. Overshadowed by its decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the Court’s decision was a landmark blow to the honor we bestow upon sacrifices made by few while protecting the freedoms enjoyed by all.
According to the Court, Congress violated your First Amendment rights to free speech by making it a crime to knowingly issue false claims about your receipt of military awards for heroism, including America’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor. If, that is, you do so without the intent to defraud — as if one would make such a false claim for other purposes.
While the Supreme Court consents to limiting the First Amendment in the instances of slander and unfounded character assassination attempts targeting persons and organizations, according to SCOTUSblog, “The Court concluded that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional because the Government had not shown that the statute is necessary to protect the integrity of the system of military honors — the interest the Government had identified in support of the Act.”
The decision to eliminate any penalty for those persons falsely claiming hard-earned and treasured honors is disturbing in many ways. But it brings to mind two simple questions: Can we protect the integrity of the system of military honors without legally deterring activities that diminish the sanctity of those honors? Moreover, by scrapping such legal deterrents, has the Supreme Court not diminished the integrity of the system of military honors, which so clearly stems from its inclusion of a select few for select reasons?
The great irony of this decision is glaring.
It is a crime to falsely claim degrees earned from universities for personal gain and employment. It is a crime to cheat on professional examinations in college. It is a crime to provide false or misleading information on a bank or mortgage loan application. Likewise, it is a crime to lie to law enforcement officials during the course of an investigation, and pose as an unlicensed professional, such as a doctor, lawyer or police officer. It is even a crime to falsify a student education loan or a passport application.
These are all examples of fraud for personal gain. And I fail to see how falsely claiming undeserved military combat honors, especially the Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, or any award for valor is anything less than the greatest of frauds. Particularly as perpetrators’ agendas are virtually always focused on attaining notoriety and some form of accommodation by claiming receipt of special acknowledgements for service to our country which are reserved by the federal government for a very special group of patriots.
Those who make such claims tarnish the prestige, sanctity, honor and sacrifices of those who have legitimately earned these distinctions. In so doing, they denigrate the system of military honors, public perception of that system, and chip away at the prestige our society rightly assigns to military service and combat heroism.
I have personally served with fine young Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen who legitimately earned accolades and honors reserved for military heroes for their service to our country — many of whom never lived to benefit from their sacrifices. In my view, it is a disgusting and tragic footnote to our collective history that our highest court has determined accolades for such service are, in essence, free to acquire, without proper sanction, and may be displayed in the public domain under false pretenses by individuals who might not have even served in uniform.
It is a privilege for Americans to serve in uniform, and in particular an honor to be chosen to serve in the United States Marine Corps. But these imposters, these brazen charlatans who lay claim to these undeserved honors make it an absolute disgrace — a true dishonor — to all of us who have served in uniform. Let alone suffered the pain of battle, faced an enemy, collected the dead and wounded, and lived with the aftermath of doing a job that most cannot fathom, or would ever wish to perform.
Of course, these imposters do more than dishonor those of us who have served. They dishonor the values and integrity of our nation and its proud heritage.
While the Pentagon’s long-overdue plan to create a searchable, public database of combat valor honorees and medals recipients is a worthwhile step, this is not a sufficient deterrent. It is a tool that should be used to augment legal prohibitions on falsely claiming receipt of such acknowledgements for one’s service as issued by various federal entities, and, in some cases, the Office of the President of the United States.
If the federal government is unwilling to do what is right in this case, individual states must rectify this gross lapse in judgment. Just as states implemented their individual versions of immigration reform laws after being let down by the federal government, the states should establish laws to protect these honors which, according to federal law, are now easily degraded and devalued by shameful actions of a despicable few.
The implementation of laws to protect our honor, and punish those who would abrogate, who would pursue such conduct to dishonor those of us who have fought to protect their freedoms, is long overdue in many states.
And there is no better time than the present to take action to address our federal government’s failures.
Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, USMC (Ret.) is a recipient of the Medal of Honor. He resides in Mount Pleasant.