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Legislation Would Criminalize Impersonating a Decorated Veteran

Location: Washington DC

For immediate release
July 23, 2005

Legislation Would Criminalize Impersonating a Decorated Veteran

Associated Press Writer

DENVER (AP) - To win the affections of attractive bridesmaids in the new movie, ''The Wedding Crashers,'' two fun-loving partiers pretend to be Purple Heart recipients.

Under a bill three months in the making and introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives Friday, the characters portrayed by actors Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson would be charged with a crime for falsely claiming to be a decorated veteran.

''The Wedding Crashers'' scene is a parody of a real life situation that is angering true military honor recipients who say impostors degrade the integrity of real medals.

''Somebody else wearing a medal and they didn't earn it. That's defrauding people who've earned it,'' said George Sakato, 84, of Denver who received the Medal of Honor for his acts of courage in World War II.

Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran who runs a Web site dedicated to Medal of Honor recipients and has been a part of catching impostors, said the those who pretend to have medals or Purple Hearts are the exact opposite of those who have actually earned the honor.

''The phonies are very quick to talk about what they say they've done,'' he said. ''The true heroes quietly go about their lives.''

Sterner said he hopes the spoof in the movie brings attention to a widespread problem.

''Here's an example of Hollywood imitating life. Hopefully it brings to the American conscience that this is what is happening,'' he said.

Others don't think its something to joke about.

To promote the movie, New Line Cinema's movie Web site includes a fake, paper Purple Heart to cut out, with the spoof: ''Carrying a Purple Heart in your jacket guarantees you attention, admiration and plenty of free booze.''

''I challenge the producer of that movie to go to Walter Reed Hospital and walk through the ward and see if he still wants to print out a fake Purple Heart,'' said Thomas Cottone, Jr., a special agent with the FBI who enforces the current federal law. ''Talk to some of these people who don't have legs anymore and see how funny they think that movie is.''

New Line Cinema, which produced the movie, did not immediately return a phone message Friday night.

''I think it's disgraceful to use that in a movie,'' Cottone said. ''I went to a funeral for a lieutenant that was killed in Iraq and that's all he got was a Purple Heart and he didn't even see it.''

Currently only wearing, manufacturing, buying, selling or trading a Medal of Honor is a crime. The Stolen Valor Act would expand the law to include more medals and would allow prosecution of anyone who falsely claims to have earned a military medal or a Purple Heart.

''Medals recognize the best American qualities -courage, honor and sacrifice. These honors are reserved for those who willingly risked their lives for our country.'' Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., who introduced the legislation, said in a statement. ''Shame on those who claim credit for acts of courage they did not commit. Their lies are criminal.''

Since the inception of the nation's highest military honor in 1862, 3,441 individuals have been given the Medal of Honor and only 120 of those recipients are still alive, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

''Literally there are more impostors wearing the Medal of Honor than there are actual living recipients,'' said Cottone.

''There are many people out there who will say they have a medal, will have the license plate, list it on resumes, and we can't charge them because the current law doesn't cover those things,'' he said.

Impostors use the fake medals or fraudulent stories of medals to get ahead in business or to work their way into the lives of women, Sterner said.

Impostors can buy medals at gun shows and flea markets or online, Cottone said. Many medals got into circulation from the company that used to hold the official government contract to manufacture Medals of Honor. That company lost its contract in 1998 after officials discovered the unauthorized medals.

For Sakato, who is Japanese-American and was originally awarded the Army Distinguished Service Cross, he said being upgraded to a Medal of Honor about fifty years later in 2000 was the most meaningful days of his life. That he said, is what makes what the posers do all that more despicable.

''It's not right. It's just not right,'' he said.

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