Stolen Valor, Southern Style
Every month seems to bring a new case of "Stolen Valor"--military honors falsely claimed by veterans, or in some cases, by individuals who never served in the armed forces.
One of the latest incidents was discovered in Mississippi, where a pair of veterans are accused of altering their military records, identifying themselves as recipients of the Purple Heart. Their apparent motive? No-cost license plates that never expire, and prominently display the decoration. As the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports:
Federal investigators on Tuesday arrested two Mississippi men who allegedly falsely represented themselves as Purple Heart recipients in order to obtain free vehicle license plates.
John Wayne Lebo, 57, of Tylertown and Christopher Billeaud, 52, of Biloxi are suspected of altering their "official military discharge papers to reflect awards and medals (they) did not receive," according records filed in federal court.
According to court papers, officers with the U.S. Air Force Office of Investigations went to the Billeaud home in April 2007, after they discovered he was claiming to be a chief master sergeant, although he retired as a master sergeant.
One of the officers noticed that a vehicle parked at his home had a Purple Heart license plate. During the interview, the officer asked Billeaud if he received a Purple Heart and he told the officer no, court records show.
Lebo served with the U.S. Army from 1967-69 as a firearm instructor.
According to court papers, along with fraudulently claiming a Purple Heart, Lebo altered his discharge papers to show he had received a Silver Star, Airborne Medal and Sharpshooter. He first obtained a Purple Heart License plate in 1999.
Lebo's alleged phony discharge papers were discovered after an investigator compared his original forms with the ones he used in Walthall County in order to obtain the Purple Heart license plate.
Both men declined to speak with the Clarion-Ledger. But Billeaud's wife told the paper that her husband her husband "has been recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the head of Keesler Air Force Base hospital as receiving a Purple Heart but not by the U.S. Air Force."
And there's the rub. We're guessing that Billeaud's "recognition" was based on the altered military records. If the Air Force has no documentation of the Purple Heart, it's quite likely that Sergeant Billeaud never earned one.
There appears to be little dispute that Billeaud suffered a service-related injury. Deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm, Billeaud was hurt when sandbags collapsed on him during a Scud attack. But (apparently) the injury did not qualify as a combat wound, a requirement for award of the Purple Heart.
There is no indication that Lebo was ever injured or wounded during his service with the U.S. Army.
Thanks to the Stolen Valor Act, falsely claiming military honors or awards is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $100,000 fine. There have been a number of successful prosecutions in recent years.
Ironically, the national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart is also a Mississippian. And, as you might expect, retired Colonel Henry Cook III of Diamondhead is angry with the phonies--and their false claims of valor. As he told the Jackson paper:
"We' get outraged by these wannabe's as we call them," Cook said. "It's something that is puzzling to me, but you'll be surprised how widespread it is."
Cook said people falsify claim to have Purple Hearts and other war medals to get the benefits, and some do it for the glory of the valor.
Barring a potential plea deal, Billeaud and Lebo will face trial later this year. As part-time residents of the Magnolia State, we rather doubt that a Mississippi jury will buy any explantation about their phony Purple Heart claims.
ADDENDUM: The case of Xavier Alvarez is also heading to court. You may remember Mr. Alvarez as the California water board member who not only lied about being a retired Marine, but also claimed to be a Medal of Honor recipient. Alvarez is expected to go on trial next month, and the incident recently attracted the attention of The New York Times. Readers will note that the Times couches Alvarez's deception as a mere slip of the lip. In fact, he made the claim on several occasions, resulting in the filing of federal charges.