One man's database helps uncover cases of falsified valor

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010; A01

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?"

Making self-aggrandizement a crime, they say, violates the very notion of freedom for which American service members fight.

Going along with a lie

In his home town outside of Atlanta, Thibodeau had become something of a celebrity among veterans groups. He claimed to be a highly decorated Marine who had been awarded the Purple Heart and Navy Cross, which competed for space on a uniform crowded with all sorts of ribbons and medals.

Thibodeau worked with an organization that helped homeless veterans and was even feted by military groups who were inspired by his stories from the Vietnam War.

In an interview, Thibodeau, now a 68-year-old retired medical technologist, said it all started because people around him "assumed" he had served honorably in the Marine Corps, and he was too embarrassed to tell them the truth.

"I just went along with it, and before I knew it, it was an accepted fact," he said. "The longer you do it, the harder it is to get out of. It's like a spider web, and it gets more and more convoluted."

At the time, he said, he was suffering from depression and alcoholism, the results of a troubled childhood. "You're not even thinking right. Right and wrong is distorted," he said.

Years after Thibodeau started playing the part of a Marine hero, a veterans group that admired him sent his Navy Cross citation to Sterner for inclusion in his honors database.

Sterner immediately spotted the inaccuracies. And when he searched his database, he discovered that Thibodeau had taken a citation that had been awarded to another Marine and merely substituted his name and changed the date.

Getting busted, Thibodeau said, was embarrassing. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote a front-page story about his fraud. People who once adored him now considered him a scarlet-letter outcast. Thibodeau was not prosecuted. Public humiliation, he said, was punishment enough.

But being outed was also a profound relief. No longer did he have to pretend to be someone he wasn't, which over the years had become increasingly stressful, he said.

Once unmasked, he finally got the counseling that helped him deal with his depression and alcoholism. "It was probably the best thing that happened to me," he said.

An obsession for heroes

Catching phonies was never Sterner's main objective -- his database is his true obsession. Fifteen years in the making, it boasts more than 200,000 entries, representing about two-fifths of all valor awards above the Bronze Star.

Sterner pumps out 50 Freedom of Information Act requests a week to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis requesting official medal citations.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society keeps a log of its recipients, but not even the Pentagon keeps a complete list of winners of other valor awards, such as the Distinguished Service Cross or Silver Star, in part because a public database would raise privacy concerns, according to the Defense Department.

So the task has fallen to Sterner, a Vietnam veteran. At times, the database has been his only job, and an unpaid one at that. He's fallen behind on rent and bills. Friends have urged him to slow down. But he continues, driven by a desire to prevent "the real heroes" from "being lost to history."

In 2008, the Military Times bought Sterner's database for $250,000, allowing him to devote himself mainly to the project. His list is so comprehensive that FBI agents routinely rely on him. "He would be my first source to go to," Cottone said. "He's invaluable."

Sometimes, Sterner's database differs from the Pentagon's records. The military says it issued 848 Distinguished Service Crosses during the Vietnam War. But Sterner says he's dug up citations for 1,061 Distinguished Service Crosses, an Army decoration second only to the Medal of Honor.

The tips keep pouring in, flooding Sterner's inbox with subject lines such as "LOOKS LIKE ANOTHER WANNABE" and "they are coming out of the woodwork." There was the California bank employee who showed up at his high school reunion posing as a Marine. A man who claimed to be a World War II hero nearly had a post office named for him, an act requiring a vote by the House of Representatives. (The bill was dropped after a newspaper cast doubt on the man's story.)

There was even an Illinois judge who kept two framed Medals of Honor on the wall of his chambers. (No one has received two Medals of Honor since World War I.) And the groom who wore a uniform to his wedding. ("He only wore it for the pictures," his wife said in a brief interview before hanging up. "I made him take it off for the reception.")

Cottone, the FBI agent, has arrested phonies audacious enough to show up at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society banquet. He busted another person who sat in his full-dress uniform at the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq. Cottone made the phony take off his uniform in the reception hall parking lot. And then slapped on the cuffs.

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