Stolen valor?

In pointing out inaccuracies in Herald article, veterans note need for law requiring honesty

A story that appeared on Page 4A of The Durango Herald on Sunday contained a detailed account by Timothy Oliver of his time serving in Afghanistan. Since the story ran, numerous questions have been raised about accuracy of this account.

Specifically, knowledgeable readers found reason to doubt his service in the Army’s elite Delta Force.

Oliver, when reached by phone, said he could not provide any documentation to support his account or show that he had served in the military.

“You can run a retraction with my apologies if somebody was offended,” he said.

He maintained that he had served, but said any evidence of it would be classified.

“I was trying to help people out, but I can’t prove this one,” he said.

Jonn Lilyea, a retired infantry platoon sergeant, spends much of his time looking for people who provide inaccurate accounts of their military service and exposing them on his blog http://thisainthell.us/blog.

Lilyea was among more than a dozen people, many retired military, who emailed the Herald raising concerns about Oliver’s account.

Lilyea said he dedicated himself to ferreting out fakes because they are more common than many people would believe.

“With the Stolen Valor Act struck down by the Supreme Court, that leaves private citizens to protect the honor of soldiers,” he wrote in an email. “I like to think of This Ain’t Hell as the stocks and dunking chairs of the veteran Internet community where we can expose the frauds and folks can come by and throw metaphorical rotten tomatoes at them.”

The Stolen Valor Act, introduced by former Colorado congressman John Salazar, made it illegal to lie about receiving the Medal of Honor and other prestigious military recognitions.

Salazar sponsored the House version of the law. Although Congress passed the Senate version of the bill, it still counted among Salazar’s biggest achievements in office.

Salazar, who is now Colorado’s commissioner of agriculture, said he hoped Congress one day could find a way to protect legitimate veterans from impostors.

“I’m disappointed with the court’s decision, but I respect it,” Salazar said in an email Friday. “This was a fight worth having. I’m proud to have fought on behalf of our brave men and women who served this nation in uniform and who earned high honor for their service and valor.”

The Supreme Court case, United States v. Alvarez, came out of California. It concerned Xavier Alvarez, a member of a water district board, who introduced himself as a former hockey player for the Detroit Red Wings, ex-husband of a Mexican starlet and the recipient of the Medal of Honor in 1987.

None of it was true, and federal prosecutors won a conviction under the Stolen Valor Act.

In a strongly worded opinion, Kennedy compared the act to the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel about totalitarianism, 1984. If the government can outlaw lying about military service, even in the privacy of someone’s home, it can outlaw any type of false speech, Kennedy wrote.

Justices voted 6-3 to overturn the Stolen Valor Act, but two of the justices in the majority invited Congress to pass a narrower law that would get Supreme Court approval.

Justice Steven Breyer, in a concurring opinion, noted that better use of databases could help expose fake veterans.

Oliver, profiled in Sunday’s paper, did not claim to be the recipient of a medal.

Lilyea said the media should do a better job of policing accounts of military service. This includes asking vets to show their bona fides, such as a DD Form 214, which details service history and is issued to every member upon discharge.

Oliver, when asked for a copy of his DD Form 214, said he did not have one.

Lilyea said there is nothing offensive about asking for proof.

“I don’t mind showing my discharge – I’m proud of my service – and I’m sure most real veterans don’t mind. Only the phonies would object,” he said.

When asked to provide a copy to the Herald, Lilyea quickly sent the one-page document by email.

It noted, among a list of commendations, that Lilyea was the recipient of a Bronze Star.

kburford@durangoherald.com

Herald Staff Writer Joe Hanel contributed to this report.

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