One man's database helps uncover cases of falsified valor

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010

It certainly looked real. It had the right font, right seal. It was even signed by the secretary of the Navy.

But Doug Sterner, self-appointed guardian of the nation's military decorations, immediately suspected that there was something fishy about the Marine's citation for the Navy Cross, one of the military's most prestigious awards.

First of all, it said that the president "takes pride" in presenting the prize. "Pride," Sterner knew, is typically used only when the recipient is dead. This Marine was very much alive, which meant the citation should have said the president "takes pleasure."

Then Sterner noticed that the citation was supposedly signed in 1968 by Navy Secretary Paul H. Nitze. But Nitze was secretary only until 1967.

Sterner, who lives in Alexandria, knew that in his obsessive quest to compile a database of recipients of the military's top decorations, he had found yet another phony. This time, the man he outed was Richard Thibodeau, who for years had proudly spun tales of heroism and even had his awards hung in a veterans museum.

Since 2006, thanks to a federal law Sterner helped craft, claiming an unearned military decoration has been a federal offense. The FBI says the crime is on the rise as an increasing number of wannabes impersonate vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with fictional tales of heroism.

Although the wars might be unpopular, Americans love a hero and are eager to honor men and women in uniform. The desire to show respect to vets is palpable even when so few Americans -- about 1 percent of the population -- actually serve, and most can't distinguish a corporal from a captain. The disconnect between the military and many civilians makes it all the harder for most people to tell the difference between the hero who was awarded his Purple Heart after taking shrapnel in the Battle of Fallujah and the fraud who purchased his medal on the Internet.

Some phonies do it for the money they collect posing as war heroes. But Tom Cottone, an FBI agent who for years busted them, said most do it for an adoration money can't buy. "They do it for the unearned recognition and respect," he said. "They get access to people, places and events they would never have except that they are representing that they earned awards for valor in combat."

The FBI investigated 200 stolen valor cases last year and typically receives about 50 tips a month, triple the number that came in before the September 2001 terrorist attacks, according to an FBI spokesman.

Fed up with the phonies, Congress in 2006 made it a crime punishable by up to one year in prison to claim, orally or in writing, an unearned decoration. Supporters of the law said the phonies diminish the value of the prestigious awards and rob true heroes. Before the Stolen Valor Act, it was illegal only to wear an unearned decoration.

But now the law is being challenged in court by free speech advocates who say that lying about military valor might be shameful but should not be criminal. The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech means that if burning the flag is legal, then wearing unearned medals should be, too, critics say. The Constitution, they say, protects acts of personal reinvention, whether it's a politician rewriting his past, a guy trying to pick up a woman in a bar or someone donning a fake medal.

"The fact is that people lie about things all the time," said Jonathan Libby, a California public defender whose client is challenging the law. "They lie about their age, their sexual orientation, their marital status. On dating sites, they lie about their physical appearance. What would prevent Congress from outlawing any of that?"

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