• jdallasbrooks

A Generation X Reflection on Stolen Valor

As I’m about to insert my debit card to pay for my meal, the cashier raises his eyebrows as if he’s been startled. “Oh, I forgot the veteran’s discount! Hang on a second,” he says as he points at my United States Air Force hat with the word ‘Veteran’ stitched across the front. In that moment, if I hadn’t served in the military, I could be put in handcuffs and prosecuted.

“That’s not necessary,” I reply, but I also wait for the discounted price before inserting my card. I’m a veteran, not a saint. I don’t mind keeping the extra couple of bucks instead of giving it to the national fast-food chain. It occurs to me, however, that he has no proof that I am a veteran. The hat can be purchased by anyone for $15. How does he know I’m not guilty of stolen valor? In truth he doesn’t, but should it even matter?

My son smiles at me because he’s seen this before. At nine years of age, he’s developed a fascination with all things military. On any given day he tells me of his plans to either fly fighter jets in the Air Force or drive tanks in the Army. As we walk to our seat, I see the familiar gaze of an older gentleman who nods at me. “Thank you for your service,” he says. This guy is clearly a civilian the way his eyes light up at my hat, but in this military-friendly community in Colorado, this is normal.

I give a quick smile and a nod. “Thank you. I appreciate that.” It’s an awkward exchange for me almost every single time. Except for my experience at the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, I never had much of a brush with death in the service. Friends of mine have had bullets buzz by them, anti-aircraft shells hit their planes, and roadside bombs give them major injuries and other trauma. The family members of veterans killed in action have suffered even more. Nothing I ever went through during my decade on active duty could ever compare to their experiences, and it’s a little embarrassing to be lumped in with real heroes. Still, my son’s eyes light up with joy every time it happens.

“Daddy, look! He was in Vietnam!” my son says to me with his eyes wide as he spots a man’s hat with patches stating as such. You’d think he just saw a television star that he recognizes.

“Did you ever go to Vietnam?” he asks me, lowering his voice as if we’re telling secrets.

“No, son. That was long before my time.” I notice the white-haired veteran walking by with his own food and give him a quick nod of appreciation, though I don’t approach him. He returns the nod, glancing at my hat and olive-green jacket sleeves. On instinct, veterans do this to look for rank insignia. It’s strange for me to see the Vietnam veterans as old men. Growing up in the 1980s, they were middle-aged guys. They were the cool dudes like David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider or Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I. World War II vets were the white-haired folks back then. I was the wide-eyed kid admiring veterans in simpler times. When I look at Vietnam veterans today, I still feel like that 80s kid looking up to a heroic generation that went before me.

My son’s admiration of my service gives me pride, and I can see why others want that feeling, especially in the United States where the majority love their armed forces. Being an American service member today is like being in the Roman Army during Alexander the Great’s reign or the British Navy in the 1700s. It’s the strongest military force ever created.

Recently, YouTube algorithms decided to give me a crash course on stolen valor. I was treated to clips of misguided youths in Army surplus gear being confronted by real veterans. In at least half of the videos, the kids aren’t even old enough to enlist, and it shows. In most clips, it’s also clear that the valor thieves are not conducting anything resembling PT (physical training). These wannabe veterans are typically looking for that same bit of awkward recognition we real ones receive daily. In some instances, they want a discount on a meal. A few of them are out to impress girls. In any case, the veterans who make these videos tend to set the trap by asking seemingly innocuous questions.

“Have you been down range?”

“What unit are you with?”

“What is your M.O.S.?”

The faker’s story typically breaks down almost immediately with a nonsensical answer to anyone who knows the jargon. Some cases are more ludicrous than others. In one instance, a particularly troubled man wore Corporal’s stripes on his sleeves and Lieutenant’s bars on his lapels. Sometimes military medals and campaign ribbons are out of order, or on the wrong part of the uniform. More than a few of these impostors wear a service jacket over sweatpants. Only on rare occasions do the pretenders hold up for more than a couple of minutes under the scrutiny of real veterans.

There are two major problems with the concept of stolen valor.

First, you can no sooner steal valor from someone than you can integrity, duty, or loyalty. The very phrase suggests that there’s a finite amount of it, and that for a faker to pretend to possess it, one must lose some.

Second, the people who are guilty of stolen valor probably need our sympathy rather than our condemnation. The Stolen Valor Act of 2005, signed into law by President Bush, was a bit harsher than the current version. Back then, before the US Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in a 6 to 3 decision, it was considered a federal misdemeanor to pretend you had received a military decoration or medal of any type. Regardless of your intent, if you simply said you had received an ARCOM (Army Commendation Medal), and it was proven that you hadn’t, you could face six months in prison. Lying about the Medal of Honor got you a full year in the slammer. The act was amended in 2013 and signed into law by President Obama to make it a crime to falsely claim military service or awards for the purposes of obtaining some kind of tangible benefit (i.e., that $2 discount I got at the local fast-food restaurant earlier). The punishment can be up to six months in prison. Just trying to impress folks is not, by itself, a crime under the current federal law.

In some cases, overzealous accusers have gone after real veterans who don’t deserve the mistreatment at the hand of their fellow former service members. There’s hardly anything more insulting to a veteran than to be accused of faking it. Even on active duty in my Air Force dress blues, I was occasionally asked about the Army Commendation Medal ribbon that sat next to the one signifying my Air Force Commendation. The initial looks of incredulity always quickly turned to smiles of amusement and questions about how I managed to get the Army’s medal as opposed to the more typically awarded Joint Service Commendation Medal, which I do not possess.

I don’t like liars and phonies any more than the next person, but the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. Would it be so wrong to let businesses determine whether or not to verify veteran status before providing a discount? In the state of Colorado, if you’ve served in the military, simply providing your DD Form 214 at the Department of Motor Vehicles will get you a verified stamp on your driver’s license that proves your status. If a veteran is under the care of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, he or she is entitled to an identity card that states as such. Retirees from the armed services get official identification cards, as well. If private companies want to provide a discount without verification, that should be completely up to them.

As President Coolidge once said, “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.” We should take that a step further by proclaiming that it’s also more important to kill bad laws than to create new ones. It seems crass and oddly self-serving for my fellow veterans to focus so much attention on those who have little to no status in our community. That anger for the pretenders would be better aimed at Congress or the Executive Branch.

I suspect that many of these stolen valor fakers need mental health treatment rather than jail time. My own reaction to those who fake their service is to ignore them, perhaps have a quiet chuckle, and not engage in their delusions or lies. Inconsequential people who lie about military service aren’t important enough to appear on my radar. I’d rather be seen as the level-headed cool guy in my son’s eyes than the loud vigilante looking for social media likes. That’s worth far more than any discount on a hamburger.