On Memorial Day, Robert D. Ford took part in a wreath-laying ceremony in Pennsylvania. The 75-year-old wore his Marine dress uniform and played a bugle, according to the Patriot-News.
But after the ceremony, Ford stopped at a local arts festival. And that is where he apparently drew some unwanted attention.
At the festival, an American soldier, along with a Harrisburg police officer, publicly questioned Ford’s military service, according to the Patriot-News. Ford was labeled as a fake, the newspaper reported:
“He’s not a real Marine!” the officer shouted to the crowd gathered for the PennLive/Patriot-News Artsfest of Greater Harrisburg. “Stolen valor!”
“I was humiliated,” Ford told the newspaper.
Ford is an actual veteran, the Patriot-News reported on its Web site, PennLive. He really did serve.
There was no stolen valor — just another false accusation.
“This is a major concern,” said Doug Sterner, who would know.
Sterner has worked to build a database of military awards and has also become pretty great at spotting frauds, which, for the record, isn’t something he particularly enjoys. He confirmed Ford’s military history for the Patriot-News, calling him “as legit as you can get.”
Sterner is seeing this type of thing happen more and more, he told The Washington Post — guys trying to bust phonies.
“There is a vigilante mentality right now in a lot of these veterans circles which is leading to — I just call it what it is,” Sterner said, before calling it bullying.
“I would never recommend confronting,” said Sterner, who has only taken that step once in the all the cases he has looked into. Even then, he said, he questioned himself afterward.
If you’re looking for an example of what could go wrong, look at the case of Lindsay Lowery, who in January sparked controversy with a Facebook picture that showed her in an Army uniform.
Denver alt-weekly Westword described what happened next:
Posts and personal messages to Lowery asked how she could have been in an infantry unit, which in the United States military is traditionally all male. “You can do one of two things. Prove that you held an Infantry command — which you never [expletive] did, or remove your post,” one message read. “Otherwise, you’re going to have a real bad time. Embellishing is just as bad as stolen valor. And don’t think for a second that we can’t FOIA your records. Liar.”
A few hours later, the same person posted: “As a matter of fact, never mind. I’ll just have fun exposing your lying [expletive].”
Lowery, a stay-at-home mother in Castle Rock who writes for the Web site Mad World News, had posted the photo on a public page where she uses her pen name, Prissy Holly. Still, her story was real — and she had the documents to prove it, she said. She explained to her accusers that she had been assigned to an infantry unit as a platoon leader, and that the unit had been in charge of a jail and so did not serve in a combat role.
After that, she remembers, “hell was officially released.”
(The Post has edited the profanity out of this excerpt. It isn’t censored in Westword.)
These incidents keep happening for a few reasons, Sterner said. In 2012, the Supreme Court struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which made lying about military honors a crime. It was replaced with the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, which makes it illegal to “obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit” from military awards.
“It needs to be revisited,” said Sterner, who noted that he thought more laws about this issue were needed on a state level, too.
But, Sterner said, he’s also seeing people “trying to make themselves look bigger, trying to make themselves look good,” by outing military impostors. These people can see a medal they don’t recognize, or a different uniform style, and jump to conclusions.
“I hate that part of my job,” Sterner said of outing a fraud, which he said he had done recently. “But it has to be done.
“But there’s some people that feel good about confronting people, and making themselves look big by trying to take them down. But when they do that, they’re going to make mistakes and that’s exactly what happened here.”
In the case of the Memorial Day confrontation in Harrisburg, the officer and the solider reportedly started asking questions after noticing some possible problems with Ford’s uniform — his belt buckle was fancier than expected, for example. The officer didn’t back down, and eventually, the situation grew more tense, the Patriot-News reported.
Another Marine veteran, Zach Davis, told The Post that he spotted Ford at the Memorial Day ceremony, though he didn’t see this encounter at the festival.
At the ceremony, Davis said he talked with Ford about the belt buckle, too, and the conversation went much differently.
“It’s just all about tact and how you do it,” said Davis, who has reported a real stolen valor offender to authorities before. “As long as you’re respectful to them, they’ll be respectful to you.”
On Thursday, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse said police were investigating the police officer’s false “stolen valor” accusation against Ford.
In a news release, the mayor’s office said that Harrisburg Police Detective John O’Connor — “a former U.S. Marine and a decorated police detective” — “questioned Ford about his service” only after a U.S. Army veteran “demanded” that O’Connor investigate whether Ford was illegally impersonating a Marine for profit.
At that point, the news release said, “Ford became hostile” and said he wanted to lodge a complaint.
A police captain intervened, the release said, and was told by Ford that O’Connor had embarassed him.
“It is unfortunate that Mr. Ford was wrongly accused,” the mayor said, “but our initial findings indicate police officers acted appropriately and respectfully in this incident.”
Papenfuse also said this: “I want to reiterate our thanks to all veterans for their service to our country, and I represent our entire city in expressing profound appreciation for everything our veterans have done to guard our freedom.”