A former Minnesotan claimed to be an injured veteran on "America's Got Talent." Here's why the truth matters to vets.
Reports last week that a former Minnesota man's story of being wounded in Afghanistan was called into question was of personal interest to me and thousands of other veterans. Timothy Poe, who auditioned on the NBC show "America's Got Talent," said he was wounded in combat when a rocket-propelled grenade hit him as he was diving for cover, leaving him with back injuries as well as traumatic brain injuries.
Within hours, soldiers who had served with Poe in the Minnesota National Guard's deployment began to call his account into question on Facebook and military blogs. By the next day, the news media began to investigate. Though Poe is innocent until proven guilty, there is a preponderance of evidence stacking up against him, and now allegations of other instances of his exaggerating his service record are beginning to come to light.
As it happens, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently pondering the Stolen Valor Act, which makes Poe's alleged actions a serious crime. The act makes it a felony to represent oneself, either verbally or in writing, as having been awarded any medal authorized by Congress, such as the Purple Heart. The law has been challenged as a violation of free speech, with the argument being that making exaggerated claims about military service doesn't directly harm anyone, and is in effect a victimless crime.
But military veterans will tell you otherwise. Every time someone is found to be telling falsehoods about military service, every time a politician exaggerates his or her record, every time a down-on-his-luck individual claims to have been decorated for heroism on the battlefield, veterans as a whole suffer.
Military service, and especially combat service, is regarded by the public as one of the most respected and patriotic careers. Those who steal valor steal away a little of that trust and respect, and cause people to doubt the true hero.
But frauds and charlatans take more than just our trust -- too often they take people's money. Rick Strandlof in Colorado posed as a combat-wounded Iraq vet in order to solicit donations to a charity, donations he is accused of keeping for himself. Xavier Alvarez, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court challenge, claimed to be a Medal of Honor recipient and parlayed that into elected office.
Some of these liars are stealing directly from the taxpayers. For instance, the Department of Defense lists 20 service members who were held as POWs during Desert Storm, but the Department of Veterans Affairs is paying financial benefits to 286 people who claim they were official prisoners during the Gulf War. DOD says there are 545 living POWs from the Vietnam War, yet the VA is providing benefits to almost 1,000.
Poe's story dramatically improved his chances of winning on the TV show -- until he was accused as a fraud.
Claiming to be combat veteran in order to finagle a few free drinks at a bar seems to be a time-honored tradition, and perhaps caveat emptor will suffice. But those who lie before crowds not only dishonor themselves; they are taking from all of us -- taking the honor and respect our veterans deserve. The Army taught me that the easiest way to curb bad behavior is to make the punishment bad enough that it is simply easier to do the right thing. Stolen valor needs to be not just morally and ethically wrong, but legally wrong as well.
And the punishment needs to be severe enough.
Staff Sgt. David Thul, of Owatonna, has been a member of the Minnesota National Guard for 20 years.