LETTER: Stolen Valor

June 16, 2014


Since the United States went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, over 2.4 million Americans served in the military. Large numbers of these men and women served multiple tours; however, some of them never saw combat. According to the Veterans Administration there are over 22 million veterans today, and unfortunately, a small number of them have led people to believe that what they have accomplished in military service is not necessarily true.

A member of one veterans organization in the southwest masqueraded for several years as a general officer and was a frequent VIP at parades, luncheons, and special events. He was finally unmasked by an active duty service member who keenly observed that the service awards that adorned his uniform didn’t match his stated military assignments. When confronted with these facts he sheepishly admitted that he served less than two years in the military. He had the jargon and mannerisms down but lacked the details that any bona fide service member would know without hesitation.

In 2007, a man named Xavier Alvarez stood at a public meeting and announced that he was a “retired Marine with 25 years of service” and “was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1987 . . . for rescuing the American Ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis” and was “wounded several times by the same guy.”  He made these bold and untrue allegations before he actually became an elected official in his home State of California.

After he was exposed as a liar, he faced scorn and public humiliation as one would expect but the courts viewed his “lie” as protected speech and the controversy continues today. The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 makes it a crime to lie about being awarded any U.S. military medal that was authorized by Congress. However, in 2010 the 9th Circuit Court found the Act to be unconstitutional under the First Amendment in the United States vs. Alvarez.


This letter is not about what one or two men did but what is apparently becoming a phenomenon in America where people are attempting to become instant heroes in the eyes of family and friends. As the overseas wars start to grind down we are starting to see more military impostors surfacing. Some of the ways that you can identify them are:

— Boasting or bragging about being the recipient of prestigious war medals such as the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Service Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and even the Medal of Honor;

— Failure to disclose their dates of service or military training class numbers for specific fields such as Rangers, SEALS, Special Operations units, etc.;

— Responses of “that’s classified,” or “I can’t talk about that mission”;

— Mismatching the dates of service and specific wars or areas served overseas such as claims that they served in Viet Nam after the war actually ended;

— Failure to release their DD-214’s (official transcript of military service that in fact can be easily faked);

— Providing numerous stories of their exploits that sometimes match what has occurred in a movie or TV show;

— Showing up to events in uniforms that have mismatched medals or designators from other services like an Army uniform with Marine Corps designators;

— And of course, the endless war stories where he or she does something heroic each and every time.

According to The Department of Veterans Affairs, in September 2013 there are 840,398 veterans living in Virginia, and 675, 835 of them earned the distinction as combat veterans. While the current wars have lasted well over a decade the fact of the matter is that far less than one percent of the population has ever served during this time period. The Shore has approximately 5,000 veterans who have served the military with honor and dignity since WW II. However, most of those veterans don’t wear hats, badges, or coats proclaiming their service. They speak through their personal deeds of community service, church, family, and taking care of their fellow veterans. These are the traits of true valor that can never be stolen and only multiply in time with the individual.

Cape Charles

Letters to the Editor are welcome, and a diversity of opinions is encouraged. Send submissions to [email protected].



7 Responses to “LETTER: Stolen Valor”

  1. Bob Meyers on June 17th, 2014 8:38 am

    Well said Joe — thank you!

  2. Joe Vaccaro on June 17th, 2014 11:05 am

    Thank you very much.

  3. Dave Steward on June 18th, 2014 9:05 am

    Joe touches upon a poignant reminder to all of us that there are those among us that will take credit where blood was shed, lives were lost and families were changed forever for their own sake and without regard to those who actually performed the mission. With all the VA problems in the country now our veterans continue to be the forgotten minority among us and continue to be treated as second class citizens. Let us hope that this issue will ultimately be treated at the level it needs to be.

  4. Bill Aeschliman on June 20th, 2014 7:29 pm

    Living with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) the past 44 years from my service in Vietnam does not make this story any easier to read. Like most combat veterans, I found out a long time ago that combat memories are easier to deal with if you “just don’t talk about it.” I’m always suspicious when I hear someone publicly boasting about their combat service because a true combat veteran just doesn’t. Joe did a very good job writing this and he did his research but he touched on a bad nerve with those who are still dealing with emotional scars from a long time ago. I finally put a “veteran” license plate on my truck trying to display a little pride in my service to this country after all these years living alone with it.

  5. Joe Vaccaro on June 22nd, 2014 8:01 am

    Bill, Thank you for your comments. This article was originally written as a press release for American Legion Post 56 and not a letter to the editor. Post 56 Commander Dave Steward declared 2014 “The Year of the Veteran” for our Post and this is one of a series of articles addressing veterans issues. Many of us understand exactly what you’re saying and our goal at Post 56 is to reach out and help each other. Our veterans project for 2015 is to work with the local Veterans Administration and get a Community Based Outpatient Clinic on the ESVA. There are over 5,000 of us living here so why do we have to travel to Hampton or Maryland for appointments? You are most welcome at Post 56 and thank you for your service.

  6. Susan Bauer on July 2nd, 2014 4:35 pm

    As a public defender in federal court, I represented a veteran who was charged with a violation of the Stolen Valor Act. The US District Court of Maryland found the act an unconstitutional infringement on the right to free speech. Because the Supreme Court has, and did, have the final word on this issue, we eagerly awaited the decision in Alvarez. Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with the 9th Circuit that the act was an unlawful impediment to protected speech. I remember closely following the oral argument before the Supremes. Justice Roberts said, “Why should any lie be protected?” The response from another Justice was how about, during World War II, the statement “There are no Jews hiding in my basement?” Whereas I personally find the kind of deceit practiced by Alvarez, and even my client, repugnant, I believe that true heroes would not want to compromise their civil rights to punish people who choose to behave despicably. A liar does not, and can not, steal someone else’s valor. A real hero does not need the “protection” this law sought to provide.

  7. Larry Darby on July 3rd, 2014 5:02 pm

    I think many veterans see these imposters costumed in mismatched insignia, sporting improbable commendations and ribbons and telling their movie style tales of daring to be no more than amusing clowns. As Bill said above, most combat veterans don’t talk about it. If they do mention anything I have found it is usually in the sole company of another veteran that had similar experience or served in the same locale. Maybe only unit names, dates, the geography or climate are mentioned. They’ve touched base, validated each other and that’s it. Combat veterans generally don’t share any personal gory details. It’s more likely they would like to forget it even if, maybe especially if, they inflicted the gore.

    Thanks for the interest but I don’t think veteran imposters make the top ten list of concerns of most veterans. However, we could use some help at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    I have been told that physicians’ pay at the VA is about 30% below market. This affects care and even the availability of care. I know for a fact that some veterans, including Vietnam era veterans, have been told “we just don’t have the resources to serve you. We cannot accept your application for registration at the VA”. Most of the structures at the two VA hospitals I have used in Virginia are WW II vintage. I could go on. The Veterans Health Administration is staggering under the load.

    The only way to fix this is to convince our Congressman and Senators that they may lose their job if they do not take action now. Forget the letters. When your Congressional reps are in your district and hold “town meetings” or speak to the Chamber of Commerce or whatever, go, stand up and demand to know what he/she will do specifically to properly fund the VA. They love to use veterans and wounded military people as props and associate themselves with us if there are cameras in the room. Tell them you’d rather see some tangible support for veterans. If they try to dodge you or present themselves a different question they would rather answer, interrupt and repeat the question with more volume. Put them on the spot. The idea is to embarrass and shame them publicly if they try to skate around this. They may have the microphone but you can speak up and show your tangible support for veterans and highlight the shameful lack of support from members of Congress. If there happens to be a newspaper or broadcast reporter present who wants to interview or chat with you, cooperate with them.

    Don’t wait until New Year’s. Make it a July 4th resolution. Thanks.