A former Southern California Marine has been handed a 21-month federal sentence for faking a Purple Heart and lifting from another Marine's combat story to get disability benefits and a free house.
In a rare prosecution under the 2013 Stolen Valor Act, a 35-year-old Iraq war veteran will also have to pay back more than $300,000 to the U.S. government and a Texas charity.
Brandon Blackstone served with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment out of Twentynine Palms in the Mojave Desert in 2004. He deployed to Iraq in August, during a period of fierce fighting on the Syrian border.
So did Casey Owens, another 1/7 Marine.
But that's where the similarities in the two Marines' stories end — and where Blackstone's fabrications began.
Prosecutors and fellow Marines say Blackstone fashioned a tale of blast injuries and combat stress based on a horrific explosion that nearly killed Owens and cost him both of his legs.
Owens was in a Humvee that triggered a double anti-mine bomb while responding to a downed U.S. serviceman in September 2004.
Blackstone was in the area and likely witnessed the event. But he wasn't injured in that attack — or in any other combat incident — according to people who were there, the U.S. Attorney's office in Texas, and Blackstone's own lawyer.
In fact, he was evacuated from Iraq after a month with appendicitis.
But starting at least in 2006, Blackstone began spinning a story of suffering traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after his Humvee hit a mine in Iraq.
He even fabricated two witness statements to support his claim for U.S. Veterans Affairs Department disability benefits that he received from 2006 to 2015, prosecutors said.
Worse, in the eyes of his fellow Marines, he began showing the photograph of Owens' mangled Humvee as part of his story about how he was wounded.
"This scumbag lied to try to get s--t. You don't do that. It's not honorable. It's not how we are. It's personal for me, especially, as a friend of Casey's," said Andrew Rothman, a 1/7 Navy corpsman who was a key player in exposing Blackstone's fraud.
"This kid essentially stole from all of us. And the honor part is bigger to us than the money and the house."
Blackstone was awarded a 100 percent disability rating and, by claiming to have a Purple Heart, his application for a mortgage-free house was granted by Texas-based Military Warriors Support Foundation.
The Purple Heart is one of the most recognized and respected medals awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces. (Photo: AP)
Meanwhile, Owens tried to make the best of his life with a double leg amputation and brain injuries, among other medical complications. He moved to Aspen and competed as a Paralympics skier.
But Owens was still in pain. He did national TV interviews describing how he struggled to get the care he needed for his mental and physical wounds. His right leg required additional surgeries that took more of it away.
In October 2014, Owens used a gun to kill himself.
But things for Blackstone were going well. He became a mentor at a Missouri-based veterans charity, Focus Marines Foundation. He even started his own nonprofit group, called The Fight Continues, with two other post-Sept. 11 veterans.
But those brushes with others in the veterans community led to his downfall. His story, including video testimonials he was giving about his combat injuries, didn't sit right with other 1/7 Marines who dedicated a Facebook thread to discussing it.
Eventually, Rothman tipped off the Warriors Support charity that was poised to grant Blackstone the deed to the donated house.
Blackstone pleaded guilty in September to one count of wire fraud and one count of fraudulent representation about the receipt of a military decoration for financial gain.
At his sentencing last month, a federal judge in Texas called Blackstone "shameful," but gave him credit for accepting blame for his actions. Sentencing guidelines limited his incarceration to 27 months or less, according to news reports. His was given credit for time served since February, so he will serve 18 more months.
Blackstone's defense lawyer, Justin Sparks, said his client was diagnosed with PTSD and suffered a head injury in Iraq — but not in combat.
The head wound happened when a superior roughed him up in the barracks and he hit his head on a dresser. There were other injuries while in uniform that weren't related to combat but required surgery, Sparks said. While in the hospital, a higher-ranking Marine informally gave Blackstone a Purple Heart medal to acknowledge his pain — but it wasn't an official award.
There's no explaining why Blackstone lied about the Purple Heart or applied for the free home, knowing he wasn't qualified, the former Marine's lawyer told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
"There's not really a good answer for that. He was in a very, very tough time in his life and reached a pitfall there," Sparks said this week.
Sparks said his client seemed to lose his grasp on reality as the story spun on.
"There's a symptom of PTSD where you are living your life in the third person. You're always convincing yourself about what is reality," he said. "It's almost a coping mechanism."
Sparks said his client is still rated at 70 percent disabled by the VA.
The lawyer disagreed that Blackstone was appropriating Casey Owens' story.
"Brandon never claimed his lost his legs," Sparks said. "The only common elements in the two stories are PTSD, the Purple Heart, and head injuries. There must be at least 1,000-plus soldiers who have those three things."
Blackstone's fellow troops don't buy the PTSD explanation for his behavior. Several of them also were disappointed by his sentence.
A Marine salutes the memorial stand for his fallen brother. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)
"He was in the grip of his own lies," said Eric Calley, a former Marine who used his own money to start The Fight Continues with Blackstone.
"That judge should be ashamed. I think (Blackstone) deserves a life sentence for what he did to our veterans."
Lezleigh Owens Kleibrink, Owens' sister, said her family was hoping for closure from a tougher sentence but didn't get it.
Kleibrink said she has no doubts that Blackstone was trying to at least bask in the association with her brother's reputation.
"He was a thief and Casey's story was a means to get what he wanted," she told the San Diego Union-Tribune this week.
"What Brandon doesn't understand is that it's ripped open our wounds once again," Kleibrink said. "Anyone who makes my mother cry like this ... He may have joined the Corps, but he was no Marine."
The Military Warriors Support Foundation said it was the charity's first brush with stolen valor in awarding more than 750 homes to combat-wounded veterans.
"This was an unusual case, in that even official VA documentation was inaccurate," said spokesman Casey Kinser. "That said, we are constantly reviewing our processes to vet our applicants more accurately and efficiently."
The Fort Worth-area house that Blackstone nearly owned has been awarded to another Marine family.