Medal of Honor Among Thieves
Sunday, April 30, 2006
CHATTANOOGA -- The Congressional Medal of Honor Society reports that there are 113 living recipients of the nation's highest military award, but an FBI agent said impostors outnumber the true heroes.
"There are more and more of these impostors, and they are literally stealing the valor and acts of valor of the real guys," said Tom Cottone, who tracks such pretenders in addition to his work on an FBI violent crime squad in West Paterson, N.J.
Some fakers merely brag about receiving the award -- and that's not illegal -- but some impostors wear military uniforms and bogus medals. "There are guys out there wearing the Medal of Honor who didn't earn it," he said.
It's hard to know the exact number of impostors, but there are about 25 pending investigations, said Cottone, who has been investigating fakers since 1995.
World War II Medal of Honor recipient Charles Coolidge of Signal Mountain, Tenn., got flimflammed out of his medal -- at a military reunion, of all places -- when someone offered to help recondition it and gave him back a fake version of the award.
Cottone tracked down Coolidge's real Medal of Honor from a man who was selling and trading medals in Ohio.
"It was a big surprise to me to get it back," said Coolidge, 84.
Coolidge received the Medal of Honor for leading an outnumbered section of heavy machine guns during four days of fighting against German infantry and tanks in France in 1944.
Congress increased the penalty for fraudulently wearing the Medal of Honor in 1994 -- up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. But there's no such penalty for other medals, and it's still legal to lie about getting the Medal of Honor.
"It is now not illegal for somebody to go on national television and say 'I was a Medal of Honor winner' or a POW," Cottone said.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation and other veterans groups are looking to change that. Rep. John T. Salazar (D-Colo.) is sponsoring the Stolen Valor Act to penalize distributors of phony medals and those who pretend to be decorated veterans.
Salazar's legislation would make it illegal to make a false public claim to be a recipient of any military valor award, such as the Medal of Honor, a Silver Star or Purple Heart.