Veterans disappointed about court's ruling but say free speech takes priority
By Allen Reed,
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Jack Jacobs can proudly — and truthfully — say he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor in Vietnam. After a recent Supreme Court ruling, anyone else is free under the First Amendment to make the same claim, whether it’s true or not.
Some military veterans say they consider the ruling a slap in the face. For Jacobs, though, it was the right decision. He said he wore the uniform to protect people’s rights — even if he doesn’t agree with how they exercise those rights.
“There are lots of things people do that revolt me, but I’m happy that I fought for this country not to give them the right to do something stupid, but for the majority of the people to do the right thing,” said Jacobs, 66, who earned the Medal of Honor in 1969 for carrying several of his buddies to safety from a shelled rice field despite the shrapnel wounds in his head, the streaming blood clouding his vision.
“I’m a free-speech guy,” he said.
The high court ruled 6 to 3 on Thursday to toss out the conviction of Xavier Alvarez, a former California politician who lied about being a decorated military veteran. He had been charged under the 2006 Stolen Valor Act, which made it a crime to lie about receiving the Medal of Honor and other prestigious military recognitions. The decision invalidated the law, as the justices ruled Alvarez’s fabricated story was constitutionally protected speech.
For Murel Winans, 87, lies about service can cause real harm and lead people to doubt the veracity of claims made by people who actually served during wartime. He said he didn’t buy the free-speech argument.
“You feel like you never earned it, because when you tell someone what you’ve done, they’ll say, ‘you’re lying just like those other guys,’ ” said Winans, who described himself as a “fresh young hillbilly from West Virginia” when he landed on Normandy’s Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 — his 19th birthday.
The law was inspired by the 1998 book “Stolen Valor” by B.G. “Jug” Burkett, a Vietnam veteran. The government had argued that the law was a needed tool to protect the integrity of military medals.
The ruling was issued the same day as the high court’s landmark decision upholding President Obama’s signature health-care overhaul. While much of the nation watched with rapt focus on what would become of the law that requires every American to have health insurance, many people in military communities were more focused on the ruling on the Stolen Valor Act.
Emotions ran high in Fayetteville, home to the 251-square-mile Fort Bragg. About 38 percent of North Carolina’s population is either currently in the service, a veteran or a dependent of one, according to the state Department of Administration. The state is also home to the sprawling Camp Lejeune, known for its training in amphibious assaults.
“My boys are out there giving their heart and soul,” said Rose Moore, whose son is stationed in Afghanistan. “To have someone say they did it and they didn’t do anything — it’s a lie, it’s dishonest.”
Army Capt. Albert Bryant acknowledged that he was disappointed, saying the lies can detract from people who earn something like the Medal of Honor. However, his disappointment was somewhat tempered.
“I know it’s the First Amendment, but maybe you need to have an amendment to the amendment to protect our enlisted men and women,” Bryant said. “Very few things in life are black and white, so you have to take certain things in context, but there has to be some kind of common sense applied.”
The decision doesn’t give anyone carte blanche to lie about their service record in an effort to get free perks, however. Anyone who fabricates any honors can still face fraud charges, which is what happened to former Marine Sgt. David Budwah in 2009. He was demoted to private and dishonorably discharged after pretending to be a wounded war hero to get free seats at rock concerts and sports events.
Twenty-year Army veteran Raymond Hunt said the justices made the right move in protecting free speech. He said it’s enough that Alvarez has been publicly shamed.
“For the rest of his life he has to walk around with that look on his face and know that he was the biggest liar in the country on something that is so sensitive to our country,” Hunt said.
Retired Army Lt. Hal Fritz said the court treated those medals as something abstract. But for him, it’s a memory.
Fritz was leading a seven-vehicle armored column down a Vietnam highway in 1969 when enemy combatants launched a surprise attack from all sides. Fritz was seriously wounded in the crossfire, but ran through the machine gun blasts to rally his troops. After his platoon survived the first wave, Fritz charged into a second enemy advancement armed with only a pistol and a bayonet. He was seriously wounded, but refused medical attention until all of his men had been cared for. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1971.
“We would disagree with the majority saying lying about receiving the medals doesn’t devalue them,” said Fritz, 68, who lives in Illinois. “I would say go back with me to Vietnam dragging the dead and dying off the battlefield.”
The Medal of Honor is among the rarest of honors: Only 81 of the 3,457 recipients since the Civil War are living. Of those, only three are younger than 35, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Of those interviewed, the Medal of Honor recipients agreed that Congress should try again to pass a similar law that would survive judicial scrutiny. That didn’t ease the anger of Vietnam veteran Richard A. Pittman, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1968.
He had left his platoon to help Marines under fire, exhausting several machine guns before hurling his final weapon at the enemy: a grenade. His actions halted the Vietnamese advancement and bought time that saved many of his wounded companions.
“I’m supportive of the Constitution, but in this case I just think they’re wrong,” said Pittman, 68, who lives in California. “I wonder what the Supreme Court would think if part of my résumé said I was a member of the Supreme Court or I answered my phone, ‘Justice Pittman.’ ”
— Associated Press