Why lying about military service is a crime rarely prosecuted
The Times Free Press in November 2016 published a story that included information about Vietnam veteran Stephen D. Holloway, who was speaking at a Veterans Day event in Pikeville, Tenn., and claimed to be the most-decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. Holloway's public claims were challenged by veterans of Vietnam and other conflicts, and the Times Free Press has spent more than a year investigating his military record. To date, Holloway maintains his claims are accurate, though few of his medals and awards have convincing documentation. This is part 2 of a two-day series.
The U.S. Supreme Court deemed lying about military service or medals a matter of free speech when in 2012 it struck down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, signed into law by President George W. Bush.
Intentionally lying about, embellishing or fabricating one's military service, medals or awards was protected speech under the First Amendment, the court ruled. But in 2013, President Barack Obama signed a revised version of the Stolen Valor Act that defined the violation as relating to fraudulent claims about military service "with intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit."
In other words, lies that materially benefited the person who uttered them could be a criminal violation. That's aside from the fact that many veterans feel lies about military records or medals diminishes the sacrifices made by others.
The embellishment of military service records is not rare. But it is rarely prosecuted by federal authorities under the Stolen Valor Act of 2013.
Mary Schantag, chairwoman of the POW Network, has investigated hundreds of cases in which people's lofty claims about their military service turned out to be false.
She said that, without a prosecutor willing to take on a stolen valor case, the best way to fight back usually is to publicly question a person's claims.
"If he was asked, did he refuse to provide orders? Did he claim they burned? Did he claim he lost them? Did he claim they're secret?" Schantag said.
"The ball basically is in his court, and there would be a lot of guys out there asking the same question: Why is it on his DD-214? [military discharge papers] Where's the rest of it? Where's the orders? Where's the evidence?"
Schantag said she has seen close to 100 cases in which false information got into military records, whether through self-editing, intimidation of a clerk who handled documents or other means.
"Unless there are orders for this someplace, unless [the claimant] has witnesses, it's still questionable," she said.
Violation of the Stolen Valor Act is punishable by a fine and up to a year in prison. The problem is finding a federal agency with the resources and staffing to devote to the cases, Schantag said.
"They're not going to drop their work on terrorism because we've got a guy claiming eight Purple Hearts," Schantag said. "It's common sense. That's reality. But the state level may have the ability to pick that up. It's a federal crime in most instances, falsifying military records but it pales in comparison to the level of other crimes going on that the FBI has to go after."
Several states have stolen valor laws on the books, including Alabama, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas, according to news reports.
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Schantag's voice began to break when she described her passion for the issue.
"It is to make sure our military history and the lives lost to fight for freedom, to make sure those things are accurately told," she said. "These liars are changing military history and if you think about it, 50 to 100 years from now, who's going to be able to figure out the truth or a lie?"
Stolen valor takes away from those who spilled blood and, in some cases, lost their lives, she said.
"You get these guys that want that status," Schantag said. "But they didn't earn it. They don't have the nightmares these other guys wake up with because of what they went through. They just want the recognition. They don't want the pain. They don't want the nightmares. They just want to be somebody's hero, and it doesn't work that way."
Stolen valor has been a high-profile issue in East Tennessee and the region before.
Charles Kaczmarczyk and his wife, Martha, were the focus of an NBC "Dateline" program titled "Secrets in the Smoky Mountains" that aired in the fall of 2016, revealing how a Veterans Affairs investigation showed they faked military service and disabilities to obtain fraudulent benefits.
The investigation also led to the revelation that Martha Kaczmarczyk murdered her ex-husband as the con began. News reports detailed an initial indictment accusing Charles Kaczmarczyk of creating fake Air Force documents showing medals and decorations he did not earn, as the couple reaped benefits in their social status and finances.
The Monroe County couple is in prison now, with Martha sentenced to 50 years for her ex-husband's murder.
In April, military veteran and former Holly Springs, Ga., police officer Shane Ladner was convicted by a Cherokee County jury on six felony counts of making false statements. Jurors found he lied about awards he received from the Army in the early 1990s, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.
Ladner had told people he carried out top-secret missions in Central America, Cuba and Somalia. He led people to believe he was a decorated war hero who was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received during a firefight in Central America, according to the Journal.
Jurors convicted Ladner of submitting a falsified DD-214 to his former employers and to the Cherokee County Tag Office to obtain a tax-exempt Purple Heart license plate for his Ford F-150.
In a 2016 story about a Veterans Day ceremony in Pikeville, Tenn., Vietnam veteran Stephen Douglas Holloway told the Times Free Press he was a POW and had earned more than 50 medals, including nine Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, three Army Commendation Medals, three presidential citations and scores of others.
But those medals were not all listed on Holloway's military severance documents the newspaper obtained from the National Personnel Records Center, part of the National Archives.
A primary release paper, the DD-214, is given to all military service members when they are discharged. Holloway has two DD-214s filed in the National Archive for his first enlistment. They're identical except for the awards listed.
One of the National Archive copies and a matching copy provided by a family member show Holloway earned a National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and a Vietnam Campaign Medal.
The other says he also earned "(9) PURPLE HEARTS, BRONZE STAR, ARCOM W/V, SILVER STAR."
Veteran students of military documents and fakery contacted by the Times Free Press saw several problems with that DD-214.
The awards are out of order, for one thing, and the rarity of a Silver Star, in combination with the other suspicious claims, raises questions about that award, as well. Of the 60 million people to have served in the American military, only about 130,000 earned the Silver Star, experts said.
Bruce Kendrick, a member of Ernie Pyle Chapter 1945 of the Military Order of Purple Hearts, said Holloway's failure to provide proof of his awards is suspicious, too. Decorated veterans usually are happy to produce documentation of their service and medals, he said.
"If somebody sees me wearing this [military veteran's] hat and they say, 'I don't believe you,' then I'll prove it. I don't mind it. It's not going to offend me or anything like that," Kendrick said. "I'll get out my DD-214 and if that doesn't satisfy them, I'll meet them somewhere else and I'll bring them these things, and I'll bring these pictures and I'll bring them these orders and let them read them.
"It's that important to me," he said.
Two national experts in the area of stolen valor contend that anyone awarded nine Purple Hearts would be a national hero, a legend.
The fact that no one has heard of Holloway is one of many red flags raised, said Anthony Anderson, founder and CEO of Guardian of Valor LLC and a retired Army staff sergeant.
Virginian Doug Sterner, founder of the organization Home of Heroes and its website, echoes Anderson's assessment. Sterner and his wife, Pam, in the last decade or so played a role in the early versions of the federal legislation.
Sterner noted details of the major decorations listed on Holloway's DD-214. Pointing to horizontal alignment of the type and some differences in the shape of the characters and the spaces between them, he said the document looks like "it went through at least two iterations on at least two typewriters."
Also, Sterner said the awards are in reverse order of the way they should be listed, with the most valorous medals first and the lesser ones — the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and Vietnam Campaign Medal — last.
"It's obvious to me that those four awards were added to the DD-214 and were not put on there when the DD-214 was actually generated," Sterner said.
Sterner said a fire at the National Personnel Records Center on July 12, 1973, destroyed 16-18 million military personnel files. Because of that, veterans are allowed to submit paperwork to be placed in their files, an opportunity that could be tempting for people who wanted to embellish their records.
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Records show Holloway is a Vietnam veteran who served almost 27 months as a supply clerk with the 71st Transportation Battalion between Jan. 5, 1967, and Aug. 17, 1969, before being honorably discharged as an E-5, or Specialist Second-Class.
A Statement of Service obtained by the newspaper dated Aug. 1, 1983, said Holloway was honorably transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve on Aug. 17, 1969, where he remained until he was honorably discharged Sept. 7, 1971. Then he re-enlisted Sept. 8, 1971, for four years but was discharged "under honorable conditions" in just over 11 months.
According to The Fort Hood Sentinel, an Army newspaper, there are five types of discharge: Honorable; General, Under Honorable Conditions; Under Other than Honorable Conditions; Bad Conduct; and Dishonorable.
The documents obtained by the newspaper show Holloway's rank at his second discharge as E-4, which is lower than E-5. The documents did not explain the difference, and other paperwork obtained by the Times Free Press — "2-1" jackets, manila document holders with an index listing the contents — link many of the claimed medals to the time period associated with the Army Reserve, despite the fact that the box for listing "wounds" is empty though Holloway claimed to have been wounded in combat nine times. Officials have said the 2-1 forms can be modified by civilians or veterans.
Anderson said that, given the medals he claims, Holloway should have at least maintained his rank or been given a significant promotion, unless there was a problem with his service.
The Times Free Press has asked the National Personnel Records Center for documents related to Holloway's second tour of duty. The paper also contacted Holloway's family members throughout the past year but, beyond providing one of the DD-214s the newspaper has now obtained, they have declined to participate in the story.
There are three vehicles at Holloway's Hixson residence, two that bear Tennessee-issued Purple Heart license plates and one that has a Tennessee-issued Silver Star plate. The Times Free Press has verified that all three are registered in Holloway's name.
Is there an investigation underway in Holloway's case?
Since early summer, Anderson and Sterner's requests for Holloway's military service records have been stymied. Both say they were told the records had been released to someone else or possibly another government agency. The Times Free Press shared the records it obtained so far with the military experts and veterans who assisted with the story.
Anderson and Sterner said they have encountered only two reasons for the files to be removed by another government agency: an investigation to add earned commendations or awards or an investigation into a problem in the record.
When the United States as a nation was in its infancy, President George Washington even weighed in on the issue of claiming unearned military awards. On Aug. 7, 1782, as a military general, Washington issued a general order creating several new military decorations for the Continental Army, among them the Badge of Military Merit, which would later become the Purple Heart when it was reconstituted by General Douglas MacArthur in 1932, according to the website dedicated to the history of the first president, mountvernon.org.
"[S]hould any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them they shall be severely punished," Washington states in the order.