By Senator Ben Nelson
Lost in the flurry of recent major Supreme Court decisions on health care and immigration was a ruling that overturned a law I co-sponsored to make sure that true heroism by our military men and women is not trumped by those who try to pass themselves off as war heroes but in reality are not.
Americans hold our military heroes in high regard. We recognize their courage, honor, and sacrifice with special medals that are reserved for those who willingly risked their lives, and in some cases gave their lives, for our country.
These medals include the Distinguished Service Cross, Air Force Cross, Navy Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart and the highest award, the Medal of Honor.
A Disgraceful Crime
To gain unearned respect, sympathy, to feel important, or even to commit fraud, there are those who want to pass themselves off as war heroes.
It is such a disgraceful crime that Vietnam veteran and author B.G. Burkett wrote a book entitled “Stolen Valor” which details a number of true cases of war hero fraud. They range from individuals who wear medals they didn’t earn to those who try to evoke sympathy as former prisoners of war when most never even served in the military.
These lies are not just a victimless crime. Author Burkett believes that false heroes are actually stealing the valor of real heroes and those who suffered terribly as prisoners of war.
Protecting the Integrity of Military Medals
7 years ago I joined with a dozen of my colleagues from both sides of the aisle in co-sponsoring the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 that was aimed at enhancing protections relating to the reputation and meaning of military awards. It banned purchasing, soliciting, mailing, shipping, importing, exporting and producing blank certificates of receipt for, and advertising or exchanging medals without authorization. It further provided a six month jail term for those who falsely represent themselves either verbally or in writing as medal recipients.
The Supreme Court, on a 6 to 3 vote, ruled that the law violated the First Amendment of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech. While the ruling is a great disappointment, especially to veterans, they are the first to point out that those who wore the uniform did so to protect people’s rights, even if they disagree with those rights.
While the law was ruled unconstitutional, those who try to steal the valor of legitimate war heroes aren’t home free. They can still be prosecuted for fraud and there is the public shame they face when exposed.
Congress May Try Again
I continue to believe, as many others do, that the law is needed to protect the integrity of military medals and there may well be an attempt in the next Congress to pass a law that meets Constitutional guidelines.
True heroes are generally humble, unassuming veterans who seldom talk of their heroics. They are the true heroes and they are the ones who deserve the respect of their fellow Americans.
By Senator Ben Nelson