Stolen Valor can be exhausting at times—the lists of phonies and their stories tend to blur together—but no reporter who reads it will ever again crank out a Veterans Day feature without making an effort to verify the subject’s claims first. And if you take the trouble to obtain service records, you may find surprises. In 2008, I wrote a story that quoted a modest old gent who still cries decades later when talking about a kamikaze attack on his aircraft carrier—but who neglected to tell me he had been decorated for his heroics in fighting the ensuing fire, saving men’s lives, and possibly the ship itself. A pastor with some model airplanes in his office turned out to have won a Distinguished Flying Cross as a fighter pilot attacking batteries deep in North Vietnamese territory under heavy fire.
These are the people who motivate Burkett and Whitley. The problem is not just that lonely old men on street corners are spinning yarns about decorations they picked up at flea markets. It is not even the fraud that false heroes perpetrate against taxpayers, voters, and crime victims. The thing is, men and women under the extreme circumstances of war showed courage and self-sacrifice, and their names are being tarred by sex offenders or homeless mental patients with a bottle of MD 20/20 in their khaki jackets, who brag of heroics that aren’t theirs or ’fess up to war crimes that no soldier ever committed. They are committing a different kind of crime: stealing the valor of heroes.