Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Here's a Real Scandal for the Times

Over the past couple of days, The New York Times has been (rightly) hammered for its recent, four-page "expose" which suggested that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are turning troops into murderers upon their return. Researching military and public records, the Times found that military veterans have been responsible for 121 killings in America since our current wars began.

Sounds like a veritable crime wave, right? Unfortunately, the paper forgot to put that number in a relevant context, by comparing the murders committed by Iraq and Afghan veterans, to those among the general population.

Fortunately, New York Post columnist Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer, was up to the task. Doing a little elementary number-crunching with Department of Justice crime figures, Peters found that veterans are actually five times less likely to commit murder than their civilian peers (emphasis ours). As he writes:

In 2005 alone, 8,718 young Americans from the same age group were murdered in this country. That's well over twice as many as the number of troops killed in all our foreign missions since 2001. Maybe military service not only prevents you from committing crimes, but also keeps you alive?

Want more numbers? In the District of Columbia, our nation's capital, the murder rate for the 18-34 group was about 14 times higher than the rate of murders allegedly committed by returning vets.


In DC, an 18-34 population half the size of the total number of troops who've served in our wars overseas committed the lion's share of 992 murders between 2003 and 2007 - the years mourned by the Times as proving that our veterans are psychotic killers.

But, as Colonel Peters notes, putting the murder totals in their proper perspective doesn't fit the template desired by the NYT, depicting current and former military members as crazed murderers. And, he predicts, the media duplicity will only continue:

"...all of this is part of the disgraceful left-wing campaign to pretend sympathy with soldiers - the Times column gushes crocodile tears - while portraying our troops as clich├ęd maniacs from the Oliver Stone fantasies that got lefties so self-righteously excited 20 years ago (See? We were right to dodge the draft . . .).

On the other hand, if the Times is genuinely interested in a military scandal (and we have our doubts), there is one that's worthy of 7,000 words and four pages in a Sunday edition.

It's been going on for years, and involves all branches of the military. In fact, the problem has become so acute that Congress passed a law to punish offenders. According to the FBI, at least 600-700 violations have been identified over the past two years--and those are only the blatant cases. At one point in 2007, the bureau had 17 active investigations, aimed at bringing criminal charges against law-breakers.

The problem is "stolen valor," perpetuated by individuals who falsely claim military service and decorations for personal, financial (and even political) gain. Since the late 1970s, there have been literally thousands of these frauds, foisted on an unsuspecting public, and depriving real veterans of the honor and recognition they so richly deserve.

The scandal never really entered the public lexicon until Vietnam vet R.G. Burkett published his book, Stolen Valor, in the late 1990s. Based on 10 years of research, Burkett and co-author Glenna Whitley exposed scores of "bogus" veterans who never served in the military, or claimed credit for missions and medals they never received.

Burkett's work prompted Congress to pass the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, expanding criminal penalties to include anyone who falsely claimed military service or decorations. Yet, the avalanche of military phonies has continued.

VeriSEAL, which authenticates the service of former Navy special forces members, has investigated thousands of claims since its inception in 1992. The organization reports that 95% of those claiming to be current or former SEALs are frauds. VeriSEALs website lists scores of phonies exposed over the past decade, including a Naval Reserve Captain who served as security director for the port of Long Beach, California, and another man who ran a SEAL/UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) museum in Florida.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Retired Marine Colonel Mitchell Paige, who won the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal, devoted most of his later years to ferreting out impostors who were wearing or selling the decoration. Colonel Paige, who passed away in 2003, estimated that the number of individuals fraudulently claiming the MOH far outnumbered the 120 living recipients of the nation's highest military decoration. One of the phonies exposed by Paige was an Illinois judge claimed to have won two Medals of Honor.

More recently, curators of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Program were embarrassed to learn that only 25 of the 49 MOH they interviewed had actually won the award. It's unclear whether any of the impostors will be punished.

SpecSec, another organization devoted to identifying military phonies, has uncovered scores during its relatively short existence. The POW Network describes "wannabes" as a national epidemic.

And they just keep coming. In recent months we've profiled Richard McClanahan, the former Army Corporal who claimed to have won more decorations that fellow Texan Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World War II. McClanahan was recently sentenced to up to 31 years in prison for bank fraud and his phony MOH claims. California politician Xavier Alvarez is also facing prosecution under the Stolen Valor law, after telling two different groups that he was a MOH recipient. The Democrat mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, Bob Levy, was forced to resign last fall, after it was learned that he was never a Green Beret--as he claimed in political campaigns.

On the other side of the ideological fence, the anti-war movement has produced its share of frauds as well. Jesse MacBeth became a darling of the anti-war movement by claiming that U.S. troops committed atrocities in Iraq--until he was revealed to be a fraud. Turns out that MacBeth never finished basic training. Former Marine Jimmy Massey actually served in Iraq (and made similar claims) until the St. Louis Post-Dispatch debunked his story--by talking to other Marines in the unit and an Associated Press reporter who embedded with them.

Is this a scandal? You decide.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases of fraud and deceit--some by elected officials. Clear violations of the law. On-going criminal investigations. A new federal law to deal with the problem, and nary a peep from The New York Times.

True, stories about people who fabricate or exaggerate military records aren't as sensational as an alleged "killing spree" by returning veterans--especially when those murder totals are presented completely out of context. But, in contrast to the "crisis" detailed in Sunday's NYT, the problem of stolen valor is truly rampant, tarring the accomplishments and heroism of those who wear the uniform.

No wonder the Times won't touch it.


Andrewdb said...

I won't defend these frauds, but it is a good sign that people are now lying about being a vet instead of spitting on returning vets.

Brian H said...

Peters is actually being way too kind.

The Bureau of Stats doesn't provide an exact match for the demographic I want, but it can be roughly calculated.

Since no more than 10% of combat vets are female, the correct base of comparison should be the male civilian population ~ 17-34.
In the civilian stats, the female homicide rate is about 1/3 the male. So the combined homicides are 3/4 by males. To get their rate, cut the population base in half, and divide that back into 3/4 of the total homicides. This is equivalent to 150/yr. x 2/.9 / .75 = 444/yr. civilian rate. The vet rate is 30. 444/30 ~= 14.8. So the civilian young male rate is FIFTEEN TIMES the vet's rate.

You could get fancier by fully specifying the gender and race breakdown, but neither is likely to alter that number much.