Michael Smerconish
Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA: A new movie about Navy SEALs opened Friday, and it has Doug Sterner concerned. The film, Act of Valor, revolves around a team of SEALs trying to rescue a captured CIA agent. What’s unusual about it is that it features several actual, active-duty SEALs as actors. Sterner, who hunts military fakers the way Simon Wiesenthal did Nazis, worries that the movie will give rise to a new legion of frauds.

“Most people have never met a real Navy SEAL, but after that movie comes out this weekend, everybody is going to have a former Navy SEAL on their block,” he told me last week. “Well, Navy SEALs get a badge that identifies them as a member of the SEALs, and somebody falsely claiming to be a SEAL by extension is claiming that badge, and hopefully, the law will cut down on the people making fraudulent claims.”

The law he was referring to is the one he and his wife helped get through Congress. The Stolen Valor Act makes it a federal crime to claim falsely to have received a military medal or other decoration. This week, it was the focus of arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, where a man named Xavier Alvarez is challenging its constitutionality.

At a public meeting in 2007, Alvarez, a member of a public water board in Southern California, introduced himself by saying, “I’m a retired Marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

Alvarez is neither a Marine nor a Medal of Honor recipient. Those claims were part of a pattern of fabrication: Alvarez has also falsely claimed to have played professional hockey, married a Mexican starlet, and performed heroics during the Iran hostage crisis.

Alvarez’s conviction under the Stolen Valor Act was thrown out by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which ruled that his lies were constitutionally protected speech. Concurring with a decision to deny a rehearing of the case, the court’s chief judge, Alex Kozinski, wrote, “Saints may always tell the truth, but for mortals, living means lying.”

Kozinski then offered a litany of everyday lies: “We lie to protect our privacy (‘No, I don’t live around here’); to avoid hurt feelings (‘Friday is my study night’); to make others feel better (‘Gee, you’ve gotten skinny’); to avoid recriminations (‘I only lost $10 at poker’); to prevent grief (‘The doc says you’re getting better’); to maintain domestic tranquility (‘She’s just a friend’); to avoid social stigma (‘I just haven’t met the right woman’); for career advancement (‘I’m so lucky to have a smart boss like you’); to avoid being lonely (‘I love opera’); to eliminate a rival (‘He has a boyfriend’); to achieve an objective (‘But I love you so much’); to defeat an objective (‘I’m allergic to latex’); to make an exit (‘It’s not you, it’s me’); to delay the inevitable (‘The check is in the mail’); to communicate displeasure (‘There’s nothing wrong’); to get someone off your back (‘I’ll call you about lunch’),” etc.

Sterner is understandably upset about the ruling, which, if left intact by the Supreme Court, could erase his legislative achievement. Nevertheless, he agrees with one statement in the appeals court’s opinion: “Preserving the value of military decorations is unquestionably an appropriate and worthy governmental objective that Congress may achieve through, for example, publicizing the names of legitimate recipients.”

Amazingly, even though we live in the age of the Internet, there is no central database of military commendations. This not only makes it difficult to expose the frauds, but it can also frustrate real heroes and their families.

That’s why Sterner plans to testify next week before a congressional subcommittee looking to establish such a database. He intends to point out that in the General Orders establishing the U.S. military awards system in 1782, Gen. George Washington called for those falsely claiming military awards to be “severely punished,” and he said of legitimate honorees: “The name and regiment of the person so certified are to be enrolled in the Book of Merit, which will be kept at the orderly office.”

This, says Sterner, was the first call for a database of American military-award recipients. “Presently, there exists no such Book of Merit for any award other than the 3,474 men and one woman who have received our highest decoration, the Medal of Honor,” he told me.

Meanwhile, Sterner hopes the nation’s highest court will uphold the law he and his wife saw to fruition.

“Government does have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable from con men, charlatans, and thieves, and that is why we have laws,” he said. “The people who commit these acts of stolen valor are con men, thieves, and predators. This act is designed to protect our American society from these criminals.”

Smerconish writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.