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Combating Stolen Valor: Why this disservice to veterans remains an ongoing problem

Stolen valor illustration. (Gannett/Florida Times-Union/TNS)

During a ceremony at Cape Canaveral National Cemetery last March honoring Vietnam veterans, a Vietnam veteran with an impressive military record delivered the invocation.

James Craig “Doc” Glynn was introduced as a retired Green Beret medic and Army master sergeant who served in Vietnam and later in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The audience was told Glynn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, 10 Bronze Stars and nine Purple Hearts, among other military commendations.

Glynn did serve in Vietnam as a medic, but the rest is not true. His military service ended in 1972, and the years since have included prison time for fraud and forgery.

Military veterans have a term for lying about military service as Glynn has done: Stolen Valor.

The term is taken from a 1998 book by Vietnam veteran B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley. That book detailed a number of cases of people falsely claiming to be veterans of the Vietnam war and how such impostors tarnished the public’s image of veterans of the controversial conflict.

“I think it is rotten that he does that,” said the ceremony’s keynote speaker, Hal Kushner, of Glynn’s posturing. Kushner was a POW for more than five years in Vietnam.

This was not the first time Glynn had passed himself off as highly decorated war hero. Until recently, his Facebook feed featured numerous photos of Glynn in uniform with a chest full of decorations, most of which he never earned. The various ribbons, badges and commendations vary from photo to photo. In some of the photos, the uniforms have the insignia of a master sergeant, while others bear the three chevrons and two “rockers” of a first sergeant.

In one post he suggested that he served with Prince Harry in Afghanistan.

Glynn removed those photos from his Facebook page after being contacted by FLORIDA TODAY with questions about his military service.

In a 2014 FLORIDA TODAY story about Port St. John veteran Melvin Morris being awarded the Medal of Honor, Glynn was quoted as having been with Morris in Vietnam on the mission that earned him the medal. Glynn’s military records show he was in basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky at the time.

Glynn even recounted a conversation he said he had with Morris amid a firefight right before Morris set out to recover the body of a fellow soldier.

“He said, ‘Doc, I’m going to go get him,'” Glynn told the reporter writing the story. “Nobody goes into war thinking they are going to be a hero.”

Glynn had agreed to meet with a FLORIDA TODAY reporter to share military records he said backed up his claims. After re-scheduling several meetings, Glynn texted the reporter that he would not speak with him and was contacting a lawyer.

Glynn’s claims about his military service didn’t ring true to Kushner.

“I thought he sounded fishy,” said Kushner, an ophthalmologist who lives in Volusia County.

Kushner contacted an organization that tracks military impostors to see if it could shed some light on Glynn. The group confirmed that most of Glynn’s claims were bogus.

FLORIDA TODAY separately received a copy of Glynn’s service record through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Stolen Valor not illegal … or new

Kushner is correct that simply claiming military service falsely is not illegal.

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the “Stolen Valor Act of 2005,” which made it a federal offense to falsely claim to have earned any military honor. But the Supreme Court struck the law down in 2012, saying it violated the First Amendment’s freedom of speech guarantee.

“Fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority decision.

In 2013, President Obama signed a reworked version of the law that made it a crime to falsely claim to have received any of several specified military awards with the intent to obtain money, property or some other tangible benefit.

Several states, including Florida, have similar laws. In Florida it is a felony to falsely claim military service while soliciting for charitable contributions or for the purpose of material gain.

FLORIDA TODAY didn’t uncover any information that Glynn was illegally receiving benefits based on his deception.

Lying about military service is nothing new. George Washington warned about such impostors in 1782 when he created the country’s first military awards.

“Should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them they shall be severely punished,” he wrote that year.

Fakery was reportedly rampant after the Civil War, according to a 2010 article in Military History magazine. The article cited a January 1893 report about veterans’ pensions in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine that said during a three-year period ending in 1879, out of 4,397 affidavits filed for wartime pensions, 3,084 were false—at a cost to the government of more than a half million dollars.

Dozens of elderly men who claimed in the 1940s and ’50s to be among the last remaining veterans of the Civil War were later found out to have not served at all.

One, Walter Williams, was believed to be the last surviving veteran from either side in that war when he died in 1959 at the reported age of 117. But later investigations failed to produce any record of his service in the Confederate Army and Census archives showed that he was only 6 years old in 1860 when the war started.

“It is not a new phenomena by any stretch of the imagination,” said Ed Caffrey, an Air Force veteran who teaches at Eastern New Mexico University. In 2017, Caffrey directed “Stealing Valor” a documentary about military impostors.

It is impossible to say exactly how many people falsely claim military service or honors. But the problem is widespread enough that even those within the military sometimes get caught lying about their service. Unlike civilians or veterans, current military members can be punished for lying about their military records.

In 2015, an Army master sergeant, that service’s second-highest rank, was court-martialed for wearing decorations and badges he hadn’t earned including a tab indicating he was a Ranger, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

He was sentenced to three months of hard labor and his rank was reduced to staff sergeant.

Some veterans even exaggerate their combat experience to the Department of Veterans Affairs in order to get extra benefits, says Christopher Frueh, a psychologist who worked at the VA from 1992-2006.

The VA procedures for checking client’s claim are inadequate, said Frueh, who is now a professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

He said clinicians were hesitant to challenge veterans’ claims to combat duty. Other veterans, though, would speak up.

“In group therapy there were people who were making things up,” Frueh said. “Others would call them out.”

A study he co-authored in 2005 found that from a sample of 100 veterans being treated for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, only 41 had combat experience documented in their service records.

Frueh said the problem was an “open secret” in within the VA. “Nobody wants to study this. The VA doesn’t want anything to do with this.”

Why live a lie?

Frueh points to two reasons that generally lead people to lie about military service: For financial gain or because of simple insecurity.

Being a veteran can offer certain financial rewards such as VA benefits and preferential hiring for certain jobs. Beside federal benefits, some local governments offer benefits to veterans.

As Frueh’s experience at the VA illustrates, the processes of checking a person’s veteran status aren’t foolproof.

For instance, in 2018, a 71-year-old South Carolina man was sentenced to six-months in federal prison after being convicted of defrauding the federal government of $200,000 in health care from the VA. Keith Hudson, who never served in the military, used a fraudulent DD-214 — the federal form that details a veteran’s military service — to enroll with the VA in South Carolina.

What makes the case even more striking, the investigation also showed that Hudson had previously been prosecuted for the same scheme using the same DD-214 form in 2005 in Connecticut, where he had been placed in a pretrial diversionary program.

Others lie about military service simply to bask in the attention and respect shown to decorated veterans.

Caffrey divides such impostors into two categories: Those who never served at all and those who embellish their service as Glynn has done.

Exaggerators like Glynn are often driven by insecurity, Frueh said. “They need to have the world think they are more important than they really are.”

Sometimes people make up stories of military glory to make up for other shortcomings in their life, Caffrey said.

According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, in 1975, Glynn was convicted of “uttering and publishing,” a felony referring to forging documents. He was sentenced to six to 14 years in prison and was paroled after serving fewer than four years.

In 1979, he was convicted of obtaining money under false pretenses in Michigan and violating terms of his parole. He was sentenced to 3.5 to ten years, but was paroled in 1981.

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, Glynn served a year in prison following a 2001 conviction for burglary and making a false statement to an insurance company.

Frueh and Caffrey both say that military impostors don’t typically start out saying they’ve earned Medals of Honor or multiple Purple Hearts. Instead they tend to start with less outlandish claims, but continue to add more tales of heroism as time goes on.

After a while it becomes apparent to the impostors that they can’t walk back their claims, so they dig in further.

“Sometimes it is a snowball effect,” Caffrey said. “One lie turns into two, turns into three.”

Outing Stolen Valor

While Stolen Valor may not be new, the internet age has created a whole new community united in outing military impostors and subjecting them to public humiliation.

YouTube has dozens and dozens of videos of veterans publicly confronting those they suspect of being impostors. Sometimes the incidents end in fistfights.

On Veterans Day weekend in 2017, an Army active duty member was stabbed in San Diego after confronting a man he suspected of Stolen Valor.

In some cases, those accused of Stolen Valor were actual veterans.

In 2015, a Marine Corps veteran suffered a broken leg in Sacramento, California, after being accused of Stolen Valor by an Air Force man.

In other videos, the persons accused of Stolen Valor appear to have mental health issues.

Caffrey said it is best to avoid confronting anyone you suspect of Stolen Valor without first verifying the facts.

“The best thing you can do is let them talk and try to get their claims on the record,” he said. “Many of these people love to have their picture taken. Once you have their claims documented, reach out to one of the veterans groups … and request an official copy of the person’s records.

Kushner, the Vietnam POW who first questioned Glynn’s claims, remains amazed that anybody would lie about military service.

“I can’t imagine people who would do that,” he said.

Verifying Stolen Valor

There are several websites that track Stolen Valor that can help you verify if somebody’s military service claims are accurate.

They include: This site, run by the Department of Defense list the names of all of the persons who have won the nation’s highest military awards.

Ed Caffrey, the Eastern New Mexico University instructor who tracks Stolen Valor cases said it is important to get the first and last name of anyone suspected of being a military impostor, along with a known address and/or general age range. It is also useful to get screenshots of any claims they make on social media. One of the first things impostors will do is scrub their social media of any of their claims once they realize people are becoming skeptical.


© 2020 The Florida Times-Union