By L.B. Edgar

Special to the Daily Herald

A group of local veterans is working to make sure the hard-won medals and rank awarded members of the armed forces maintain the honor they are due.

The group is seeking to raise awareness of the issue of perpetrators posing as former or retired service members who represent themselves as having earned standing that they didn't and reaping the prestige that accompanies it.

Erwin Hunter, national treasurer of Armed Forces E-9 Association, said instances of the offense are on the rise despite recent legislation designed to curb it. In the Killeen and Fort Hood area, with its large military community, it may be even more likely to occur.

"It's more prevalent now than it has ever been," he said. "We've been working locally to try to clean up Killeen for five years with a variety of people."

The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 sought to crack down on such offenses and stiffened the penalties for wearing awards and decorations without orders or authorization as well as widened the scope of prosecutable infractions.

The Armed Forces E-9 Association hosted a conference Nov. 24 inside the chapter's Killeen headquarters to increase awareness of the crimes and the reporting procedures.

The conference's keynote speaker, Mary Schantag, implored the participants to screen potential members of veterans organizations for eligibility.

The Fort Hood area is especially susceptible to hero impersonators, and it currently boasts one of the worst offenders, Schantag said. Schantag said efforts are being made to bring that specific case to the public's attention.

Schantag, who is one of the act's watchdogs, volunteers her time as a researcher for the POW Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the documentation of POWs. In addition, the network obtains military records to verify or discredit claims of military achievement by individuals under scrutiny.

The volume of offenses is staggering, said Schantag, who receives reports of alleged impersonations daily.

She said there are four times the number of phony POWs than men who came back from Vietnam alive.

"This country is so desperate for heroes that people don't do their homework," she said.

The Internet allows would-be impersonators to purchase discharge certificates, blank orders and identification cards, as well as any supporting documents to create themselves a personalized veteran identity,

All too often, impersonators use these documents to attain membership in veterans organizations, file for Veterans Affairs disability payments or receive preferential treatment.

What motivates individuals to represent themselves as something they are not is unclear. Oftentimes, it starts innocently, Hunter said.

"It's just like the little kid in school. He starts with a little lie and adds to it," he said. "The guy is probably a good guy. In many cases it starts off as innocent bar talk."

But some offenders are truly vindictive and live the lie for years to receive the compensation, prestige and privilege of a decorated veteran.

The bottom line: "You don't run around wearing Eagle Scout, if you're a Boy Scout," Hunter said. The culprit is "the guy who puts it on year after year to better his business, improve his status in the community or receive compensation and benefits,"

Before the act's passage, the only two awards traditionally prosecuted for violation were the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's first and second highest military honors, respectively.

Now with the act in effect, all awards are fair game, Schantag said.

However, there are not enough federal agents to investigate every possible offender. Therefore, only the most flagrant violators are prosecuted by federal authorities, she said.

The next step is the creation of an online registry, based on official military records, to document awards for valor. The Stolen Valor Registry would allow people to check up on veterans to see if they had earned what they claimed.

The registry is the brainchild of Colorado Rep. John Salazar, a veteran, who championed the Stolen Valor Act of 2005.

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