Sponsored by Jonesborough Rep. Micah Van Huss, who is a veteran himself, The Stolen Valor Act was amended by the committee to make it a crime for actual veterans to fraudulently misrepresent or fabricate their military record, rank or achievements for some type of tangible benefit.
The bill would charge anyone impersonating veterans or misrepresenting their military service with the intent to obtain money, property, services or any other benefit with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries up to six months in jail and up to a $500 fine.
Before voting on the bill, Dewald testified to lawmakers about Donald J. Hunley, a man recently convicted of stealing $10,000 from American Legion Post 2 in Knoxville, where Dewald serves as a member of the executive committee.
“He did this mostly by lying about his military record, gaining sympathy for himself and his alleged service-related PTSD, betraying the trust and respect earned by honorable veterans, unlike himself,” Dewald said.
“How did he steal more than $10,000 from our post, money we used to support our community? How did he steal $7,000 from these churches? He used his gift of gab and lied. He lied by embellishing his military record, professing to have served 17 years as a decorated and wounded veteran from Iraq, a military basic training instructor, a victim of PTSD, a member of the Army's famed old-guard battalion that protects our nation's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., and more.
“He claimed to be a sergeant. This was quite a distinguished career for a man who we subsequently discovered served five weeks in the Army, never having served above the rank of E1, a soldier’s rank at basic training.”
Dewald said Hunley pleaded guilty to felony theft and was sentenced to one year in prison followed by nine years probation. Hunley had previously been convicted for stealing money from churches in Morristown by “grossly misrepresenting his military record,” Dewald told committee members.
“As post members testified at his criminal case and his sentencing, this was not just a theft case where my home was broken into and my possessions stolen. This was so much more. He stole a portion of the trust Americans have for our veterans,” Dewald said.
At the conclusion of his testimony, Dewald said the situation his American Legion Post went through is not unique.
In February, House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Tilman Goins, R-Morristown, introduced similar legislation, saying one of his constituents used doctored discharge papers to get on the local AMVETS’ board before stealing more than $10,000 from the group.
His bill was eventually merged with Van Huss’ bill, which was unanimously passed by the House Criminal Justice Committee.
Local military historian and retired Air Force veteran Alan Jackson recalled one instance where a veteran embellished his military record to members of American Legion Post 24 in Johnson City, but the man did not steal anything.
“He’d already been accepted, but we found out a little bit later all the stories he’d told us wasn’t right. We’d got a 214 (discharge certificate) from him,” Jackson said. “He’d basically only spent a few days in basic training and was medically discharged, but he’d (claimed) to been through Vietnam and killed all these people and all this other stuff. But there was nothing fraudulent-wise and we didn’t give him any money or nothing like that.”
Jackson said he didn’t have words to express the frustration he feels when he hears these type of stolen valor stories.
“It’s not just insulting me and the ones who are living, it’s insulting the ones who gave their lives and made the ultimate sacrifice by them saying, ‘Oh I won all these and I did all that.’ Well, you’re tarnishing them because they died for you to come out here and say all that crap,” Jackson said.
Van Huss’ bill calls for all proceeds collected through stolen valor fines be used solely to support and maintain state veterans’ homes.
The Stolen Valor Act will move to the House Calendar and Rules Committee next, while the Senate version already passed on a floor vote of 30-0.
A 2006 federal stolen valor law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court for being unconstitutional on free-speech grounds, but it did not include language limiting punishment to those seeking tangible benefits. Congress then passed a new stolen valor law in 2013 that included the intent language.
Texas, Massachusetts and New Jersey all have similar laws on their books.