Ron Coss doesn’t hold back when it comes to people who lie about receiving a military decoration they didn’t earn.
“It is the lowest of the low,” the Vietnam veteran from Springfield said Friday. “They’re snakes.”
Now, according to a new version of the Stolen Valor Act signed into law this week, those people can be fined or jailed if they profit by falsely claiming they received a military decoration or medal.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 as unconstitutional, deciding that being punished for just lying about a medal violated the right to free speech.
Then Congress passed and on Monday President Obama signed into law the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, making it a federal crime for someone to fraudulently claim to have received any of several specified decorations or medals with the intent to obtain money, property or another tangible benefit. It can be punished by up to a year in prison.
The specified decorations include the Congressional Medal of Honor, any of the service crosses, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, in addition to combat badges and ribbons.
“If you’ve been awarded the Purple Heart and you can prove it, fine,” said Dave Bauer, a Vietnam veteran and commander of the Clark County Military Order of the Purple Heart. “If you can’t, we put you in the classification of wannabe.”
But, what bothers Bauer and Coss just as much is that, with exception to the Medal of Honor, anybody anywhere can buy any medal.
It’s perfectly legal for a business to sell new Distinguished Service Crosses, Silver Stars and Purple Hearts, among others.
Not only are they identical to the ones issued for combat valor, they’re manufactured with the approval of the U.S. government using dyes provided by the Army’s Institute of Heraldry, which has designed every medal since 1918.
“You can buy Purple Hearts. You can buy Silver Stars, Bronze Stars. All you have to do is give them the money,” said Coss, a recipient of the Purple Heart. “All you have to do is produce that credit card and you’re in. That’s not right. You should have to produce your DD-214 (discharge papers) to even get a ribbon.”
A quick web search revealed that a new Purple Heart can be had for $34.95. A Silver Star goes for $29.95. The Distinguished Service Cross is in the $55 range.
The Vietnam Service Medal — the one Bauer and Coss received for risking their lives far from home — is $13.95.
Charles Mugno, director of the Institute of Heraldry at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, said when the U.S. Department of Defense in the early 1990s allowed full-sized military decorations to be sold commercially, it did a service to veterans.
“There are benefits to it,” Mugno said.
A veteran, for example, can replace a lost medal faster by buying it commercially than by requesting a replacement from the government.
They also can order multiple medals for multiple children. Before, he said, the veteran was entitled only to one replacement medal.
“The vast majority are used for the right reasons,” he said. “There will always be people who don’t do nice things.”
Anyone can sell medals, but to produce medals, a manufacturer must apply to the Institute of Heraldry. Once certified, they’re free to manufacture, Mugno said.
Mugno said he hears often from veterans who disagree with the rule.
“There’s a professional side of me that says that’s what the secretary of defense decided, so that’s the policy,” he said.
But, he understands the concern. A retired Marine Corps colonel, Mugno has 15 medals of his own.
“I value them as sacred,” he said.
Bauer believes the commercial sale of full-sized medals makes it easier for people to lie about them.
“That ought to be against the law,” said Bauer, who will be installed Sunday as senior vice commander of the state’s Purple Heart order. “If they’d sell miniature ones, that’d be OK. To sell the original size, that puts everyone in a bind.
“It breaks my heart.”