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Lying About Military Service: Stolen Valor Laws and Penalties

Lying About Military Service: Stolen Valor Laws and Penalties

Lying about military service, also known as stolen valor, has unfortunately become an issue in recent years. While morally questionable, simply lying about serving in the military or having certain awards is not necessarily a crime. However, there are laws against using these lies to obtain benefits, impersonating an officer, or wearing certain medals you didn’t earn. Understanding where free speech ends and criminal fraud begins is important for anyone accused of stolen valor.

What is Stolen Valor?

The term “stolen valor” refers to people making false claims about performing military service, earning awards or medals, being a prisoner of war, or embellishing other details about their service record. High profile cases have involved politicians, judges, celebrities, veteran group officials, community leaders, and average citizens.

With stolen valor becoming more common, the U.S. passed legislation in 2005 and 2013 making certain false claims about military service a crime. However, the laws have limits and nuances based on Constitutional free speech rights.

Stolen Valor Act of 2005

The 2005 Stolen Valor Act made it illegal for anyone to falsely claim to have received any U.S. military decoration or medal. This meant claiming you earned awards like the Medal of Honor or Purple Heart was automatically a federal misdemeanor crime if untrue.

There was no requirement to prove intent or that the lies caused harm. The broad language concerned free speech advocates. Lying about awards was now a crime regardless of context or reasoning.

United States v. Alvarez

In 2007, Xavier Alvarez introduced himself at a public meeting as a retired Marine who received the Medal of Honor. Both claims were lies. He was indicted under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005.

Alvarez pled guilty but appealed on grounds the law violated his First Amendment rights. In 2012, the case reached the Supreme Court as United States v. Alvarez.

In a 6-3 ruling, the court found the Stolen Valor Act was overly broad and unconstitutional. Lying, even about medals, is protected free speech in some contexts. The law needed revision.

Stolen Valor Act of 2013

After the Alvarez ruling, Congress amended the law as the Stolen Valor Act of 2013. This version focused on fraudulent intent to gain something of value by lying about military service or honors.

The law makes it illegal to claim:

  • To have served in the military or received a valor award or decoration to obtain money, property, or other benefits
  • Military service at a certain rank to obtain benefits
  • To be a recipient of specific valor awards and decorations to obtain benefits

The restricted list of awards includes the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart, and several others.

Violating the law can lead to fines, up to a year in prison, or both. Prosecution must prove the defendant lied with direct intent to receive tangible benefits.

Article 106a – Massachusetts Law

Massachusetts passed its own Stolen Valor law in 2019 under Article 106a. This state law mirrors the federal version but adds additional criminal penalties.

Falsely claiming military honors or service to obtain money, property, or other benefits in Massachusetts can lead to up to a year in jail, fines up to $1000, or both.

Article 134 – Impersonating an Officer

Another military law, Article 134, prohibits impersonating an officer or noncommissioned officer. This involves falsely pretending to hold a certain military rank to receive benefits.

For example, claiming to be an Army Captain to get preferential treatment could violate Article 134. This offense applies to any military branch. Punishments can include prison time, demotion, and dishonorable discharge.

Article 106 – Wearing Unauthorized Medals

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), Article 106 prohibits wearing certain medals you didn’t earn. However, it only applies to active military members.

Veterans or civilians wearing unearned medals are not subject to Article 106. But wearing restricted medals could provide evidence of intent for stolen valor charges.

Medals covered by Article 106 include the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart, and several others. Punishments range up to prison, discharge, and forfeiture of pay.

Defending Against Stolen Valor Charges

These laws have limits, and prosecutors must prove intent. But any stolen valor accusation should be addressed seriously with an experienced criminal defense lawyer.

An attorney can evaluate the evidence and build a defense to fight the charges. This may involve challenging improper police conduct, unreliable witnesses, free speech rights, or lack of criminal intent.

With the right legal strategy, many stolen valor cases can be dismissed, reduced, or won at trial. Don’t let the government brand you a liar or criminal without exercising your rights.

Why Do People Commit Stolen Valor?

Psychology and motives behind stolen valor cases can vary:

  • Narcissism – Self-absorption and desire for attention. Claiming unearned medals feeds ego.
  • Mental illness – Delusions related to PTSD, dementia, or other conditions.
  • Criminality – Obtaining financial benefits through fraud.
  • Insecurity – Low self-esteem and need to impress others.
  • Misguided activism – Using lies to criticize war and military.
  • Blurring of fact/fiction – Some believe their own false claims over time.
  • Camaraderie – Attempt to connect with veterans community.
  • Conspiracy theories – Belief in government plots to discredit them.

Understanding motives and psychology can help put stolen valor cases in perspective. And in some situations, treatment may be more appropriate than jail time.

Are Online Stolen Valor Investigations Legal?

Many veterans take it upon themselves to investigate and expose possible stolen valor online. But these amateur investigations risk defamation and harassment allegations if false accusations are made.

Confronting and shaming suspected military fakers through social media or YouTube videos can backfire legally. Good intentions to protect valor awards can cross into vigilantism.

Veterans should report their concerns to authorities and let police determine if laws were actually broken before publicly accusing someone online. Though frustration over stolen valor is understandable, cyber-bullying is never the answer and can lead to lawsuits.

Pros and Cons of Stolen Valor Laws

The debate continues around criminalizing false claims about military service. Potential pros and cons include:


  • Protects integrity of military honors system
  • Prevents fraudulent benefit claims
  • Upholds a standard of truth
  • Comforts families of deceased soldiers


  • Infringes on free speech in some cases
  • Hard to prove intent
  • Does not address root causes
  • Potential misuse for political/personal attacks
  • Limited enforcement resources

Like any law, effectiveness depends on consistent, fair enforcement focused on true harm rather than politics. Stolen valor laws tread a fine Constitutional line that demands thoughtful application.

Alternatives to Criminalization

Rather than threats of jail time, some argue stolen valor should be addressed through:

  • Public awareness – Widespread education reduces impact of false claims
  • Civil lawsuits – Use defamation laws to seek damages from harms
  • VA policy – Stronger verification of records for benefits
  • Mental health care – Treatment where delusions or illness factor in
  • Online databases – Make records more accessible to fact check
  • Social pressure – Let public shame be the punishment
  • Protected speech – Accept lies absent clear financial fraud

Finding the right balance is key to reducing stolen valor without over-criminalization. A layered approach may work better than turning every lie into a jailable offense.

The Bottom Line on Stolen Valor

  • Lying about military service is morally wrong but not automatically illegal.
  • Laws like the Stolen Valor Act target using lies to obtain benefits.
  • Prosecutors must prove intent to gain something of value.
  • Stolen valor laws still have limits based on free speech rights.
  • Accused individuals should exercise their legal defenses.
  • Addressing root causes may be more productive than threats of jail time.

While stolen valor should be confronted, applying these laws fairly demands discretion. In many cases, the truth is enough punishment without turning foolish lies into federal cases. As with any crime, punishments should fit the circumstances rather than relying on blanket enforcement.

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