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Investigation reveals hundreds of unsupported claims of war medals

WASHINGTON -- Scores of Americans, from clergymen to lawyers to CEOs, are claiming medals of valor they never earned. A Chicago Tribune investigation has found that the fabrication of heroic war records is far more extensive than one might think....

WASHINGTON -- Scores of Americans, from clergymen to lawyers to CEOs, are claiming medals of valor they never earned.

A Chicago Tribune investigation has found that the fabrication of heroic war records is far more extensive than one might think.

Take the online edition of Who's Who, long the nation's premier biographical reference. Of the 333 people whose profiles state they earned one of the nation's most esteemed military medals, fully a third cannot be supported by military records.

Even in death, these stories live on. A look at 273 obituaries published in the past decade alone found that in more than 4 of 5 cases, official records didn't support decorations for bravery attributed to the deceased.

The Tribune also found bogus decorations, including at least two Medals of Honor, engraved on headstones in military cemeteries across the country.


In all, more than half the medals for bravery examined, including the exalted Medal of Honor, are unsupported by official military records obtained by the Tribune from federal archives under the Freedom of Information Act.

The men whose obituaries or profiles in Who's Who make these claims are mainly individuals of note and accomplishment: lawyers, physicians, clergymen, CEOs, business executives, company presidents, university professors, career military officers, teachers, policemen, elected officials, even a psychiatrist.

"The problem is rampant," said Mike Sanborn, a former Marine who is the FBI agent in charge of investigating violations of the Stolen Valor Act. The 2007 law makes it a federal crime to falsely claim, verbally or in writing, that one has earned a medal for valor. Penalties range from six months to a year in prison and as much as a $100,000 fine.

The fraud is more than a slur on real heroes or a source of false bragging rights. Money also is at stake. The Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, provides financial and medical benefits on the basis of decorations that support claims for post-traumatic stress disorder and other war-related illnesses.

Database need

There have been an estimated 40 prosecutions under the Stolen Valor Act, nearly all ending with pleas of guilty and some in prison sentences. But enforcement of the act is hampered by the absence of a national database where employers, biographers and others can verify such claims.

Although a bill is pending in Congress that would create such a database, at the moment the only official compilation is for recipients of the Medal of Honor, maintained online by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

The Medal of Honor is the nation's most esteemed decoration for bravery under fire, and Who's Who features six living recipients who can be found online. But Who's Who lists 15 others who did not receive the honor and, in some cases, never served in the military.


Short of examining original military records, there is no easy way to verify claims for the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross or the Air Force Cross, the so-called "service crosses" that rank just below the Medal of Honor.

After examining Who's Who and obituaries, the Tribune used military records to unearth 84 bogus Medals of Honor, 119 Distinguished Service Crosses, 99 Navy Crosses, five Air Force Crosses and 96 Silver Stars.

Reasons to lie

Why would so many invent acts of military heroism? There's no evidence that such fabrication is any more common than, say, lying about academic or athletic feats. But of all the achievements society celebrates, proof of courage under fire surrounds a person with a special aura, a mystique that sets him or her apart from fellow lawyers or doctors or executives.

The Tribune was able to contact 54 of the 103 individuals whose profiles in Who's Who claimed medals for valor that were not supported by their military records.

Fifteen people contacted by the newspaper ultimately acknowledged that they had intentionally credited themselves with a high-ranking medal they did not possess.

Their explanations ranged from crass to poignant. One man said he lied because he was emotionally upset over his son's fatal battle with AIDS. A few said they wanted to impress their children or others close to them.

Another common explanation echoed the complaint of soldiers through the ages -- that a deserved award for valor had been denied. Robert Martin Kilmark, a Florida physician, included a Silver Star in his profile out of pique at not having received that decoration, he said, for piloting his burning B-17 bomber into the Adriatic Sea to save his crew.


"I was pretty angry about it," he said. "I had been recommended for it, and I deserved it."

One of the most common responses among those contacted by the Tribune was that they had no idea their Who's Who profiles claimed medals for valor they did not hold. Others responded by hanging up the phone or maintaining that they in fact had earned the medals.

But none provided proof in the form of a military document or actual medal.

Who's Who

In addition, Who's Who officials were able to show the Tribune annual updates in which many of these men signed and returned profiles verifying their bogus claims to the medals in question.

Since the Tribune began contacting veterans about the existence of their medals, 11 have contacted Who's Who to ask that the medals be removed from their biographies.

For its listings, Who's Who says it relies on information furnished by "biographees," included by invitation on the basis of past achievement or future promise.

Biographees complete extensive personal histories and are given the chance to check their profile before it appears. Once a year, they receive an update form in which they can correct errors or add new accomplishments.


Some of the biographies described exploits that could not have occurred, such as a man who claimed the Distinguished Service Cross in Vietnam for having rescued men from a burning truck near Khe Sanh, when his records showed he was a clerk-typist stationed in Hawaii.

Other Who's Who biographies are unbelievable on their face, including one claiming two Navy Crosses, a Distinguished Flying Cross and 66 Silver Stars. (The record for a single soldier is 10 Silver Stars.)

Pending bill

Spotting misrepresentations could be made easier.

A bill pending in Congress, the Military Valor Roll of Honor Act, would require the Defense Department to create a national online database naming all who have earned medals for valor.

But the Pentagon is arguing against the database, citing the cost as one of its main reasons.

Doug Sterner, a decorated Army sergeant who served in Vietnam and drafted much of the language in the roll of honor act, laughs when he hears this.

Over the past decade, Sterner has built from musty original records an online database of valor-medal recipients going back to the Civil War. Sterner estimates that his database at homeofheroes.com, which now holds 118,247 medals, is 75 percent complete.


The out-of-pocket expense to compile it: $25,000.

Prompted by the Tribune's findings, Pfister of Who's Who already is changing his company's policies. The publisher has long fact-checked educational credentials and work histories. Now, military decorations will be scrutinized, as well.

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