Stolen valor is a common problem
Experts say military awards, documents faked regularly
July 11, 2011 12:00 AM
In a story in the July 3 edition of The Free Press, Jeff “Rock” Harris falsely claimed awards and service in the military, including participating in the events in the movie and book “Black Hawk Down” as an Army Ranger.
Several members of the Ranger community have since refuted Harris’ claims, including soldiers and the author of the book, Mark Bowden.
Cases of people falsely claiming military achievements and awards is called stolen valor, and it happens on a regular basis, according to Doug Sterner.
“The most frequent victims of stolen valor are media,” Sterner said. “I have cases like (Harris’) every week.”
Sterner authored the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which makes it illegal to fraudulently claim receipt of military awards and decoration. Sterner said Harris could be prosecuted under the act if authorities find enough evidence.
President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act into law in 2006, though it has been contested by a federal judge.
The act states “false claims to military awards punishable by up to six months in federal prison (are) distinguished service cross, silver star and purple heart.”
In an extensive interview that lasted nearly an hour with a Free Press reporter for the July 3 article, Harris claimed all three.
Sterner said anyone can request a Freedom of Information Act request for official military documents, but it takes several weeks for the Department of Defense to process and fulfill the request.
He said he has seen thousands of fake or altered DD214 forms — official records of military service — and fake certificates. The Free Press has filed a request for Harris’ DD214.
On Thursday, Harris’ lawyer, Josiah J. Corrigan of Kinston’s Perry, Perry & Perry law firm, emailed The Free Press what Corrigan said was Harris’ DD214 form. The form — which has not officially verified — showed that Michael Jeffery Harris served in the U.S. Army from Feb. 26, 1987 through March 12, 1992, leaving the Army as a corporal. The DD214 shows he received an honorable discharge and was separated from the service as part of an early transition program.
The DD214 provided by Corrigan revealed Harris received several medals in his time of service, including a Bronze Star for Valor, an Army Commendation Medal and an Overseas Service Ribbon.
However, that is a far cry from what Harris claimed in the July 3 article. He told a Free Press staff writer in a digitally-recorded interview he received three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for Valor among more than two dozen awards.
Among his spectacular claims, he said he had 316 confirmed kills as an Army sniper; it’s believed by experts the record for confirmed kills by a sniper to be about 90.
In the cover letter from Corrigan addressed to Free Press Managing Editor Bryan Hanks, it states “Mr. Harris retracts any and all claims he made to Ms. (Free Press staff writer Jane) Moon that are not recorded in his official military service record and reflected on his DD-214.”
The statement concludes, “Mr. Harris apologizes to you and Ms. Moon for any embarrassment or difficulty that this unfortunate incident has caused.”
Raleigh Cash, a former Army Ranger who fought in the events depicted in “Black Hawk Down,” said documentation of awards should always be checked, as anyone can purchase copies of many awards and diplomas online.
“They’re novelty diplomas,” Cash said. “I can go online right now and get a diploma from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in business administration. I can also go to some military sites and get (awards).”
After seeing Free Press photos of what Harris claimed were his three Purple Hearts, Cash said they were “completely fake.” He said the actual awards are printed on parchment-type paper and Harris’ looked like they were printed on a computer.
Michael Kurth, who served in Mogadishu with Cash and co-authored a book with him called “The Battle of Mogadishu,” said he has seen his fair share of “posers,” but has never seen one with such outrageous claims.
“If you’re not familiar with the situation, you wouldn’t expect people to embellish that much and get away with it,” Kurth said. “(Stolen valor) happens quite a bit, actually.”
Cash said military events that receive a lot of public attention are especially susceptible to people falsely claiming to have been there.
“Unfortunately, (stolen valor) is going to continue,” Cash said. “Wait till the fake Navy SEALs(who killed Osama Bin Laden) start coming out. There, unfortunately, will be a very predictable onslaught of stuff as whether guys claim they were Rangers, SEALs or Delta guys.”
Free Press Managing Editor Bryan C. Hanks contributed to this report. Jane Moon can be reached at 252-559-1082 or firstname.lastname@example.org