After fallen soldier's identity is stolen, family seeks to preserve his memory
Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Pucino, who died in Afghanistan in 2009. His family has pushed to have broader language returned to the Stolen Valor Act.
SAGAMORE BEACH, Mass. — On the evening of Dec. 2, Lisa Pucino Haglof logged into her Facebook account to find a cryptic message in her inbox.
"This thing tried to friend me," the message read, followed by a link to an account.
Pucino Haglof did not know the sender. But after clicking on the link, she immediately recognized the man in the photographs as Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Pucino — the younger brother she had protected all her life, the Green Beret who had died four years earlier on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan.
"I said, 'What is this?' I didn't know who the person was. I clicked on the link, and obviously it was a fake Facebook page. It had Matthew's pictures on it, but I knew it wasn't him," she said.
The next month, police in a town outside Buffalo, N.Y., arrested Brandon Ashraf, 28, who was accused of criminal impersonation, a misdemeanor, in using Pucino's identity on Facebook and on dating websites.
Family members were grateful for the Cheektowaga investigation, which police said confirmed an allegation brought by Melissa Pucino, the youngest of the three siblings.
They wanted a stiffer penalty, however, for the charge of stealing a soldier's identity. But their push to change the law in honor of their fallen brother has found an obstacle in a recent Supreme Court ruling.
A law called the Stolen Valor Act makes a federal crime out of falsely claiming to have military decorations, but it is not as broad as its predecessor. In 2012, the Supreme Court struck down a 2005 version of the law on First Amendment grounds, prompting Congress to pass a narrower version that President Barack Obama signed last year.
The latest version applies only to cases in which there is an "intent to obtain money, property or other tangible benefit." "...Violators could face a fine, up to a year in prison — or both.
When he allegedly passed himself off as Matthew Pucino to two women on the PlentyOfFish dating website, Ashraf had no apparent financial motive, meaning the Stolen Valor Act did not apply. So the Pucino family pushed to have broader language returned to the law.
"This is the Stolen Valor Act. It doesn't say stolen money, stolen tangible items, stolen monetary values. It's talking about Matthew and every other soldier that someone has impersonated out there," Pucino Haglof said. "Their heroism, their courage, their bravery — that's what they're stealing. For someone to take Matthew's identity and steal it, to the women that he's portraying himself to, they're tarnishing his name, his pictures.
"It's disgraceful. And that's why it needs to be changed."
The passion behind the Pucino family's push manifests itself in the word "you." When she shares the pain of losing her older brother, then seeing his identity stolen, Melissa Pucino occasionally speaks as though she's arguing before the Supreme Court or testifying before Congress.
"It's disgusting, because these people laid down their lives for your freedom, and this is how you turn around and treat them," Melissa Pucino said. "You don't back them. You don't protect them. They gave the ultimate sacrifice for you, and you don't protect them now. They gave the ultimate sacrifice for you. We wouldn't have a country without them."
The case that led to the high court ruling was rooted in a lie told by Xavier Alvarez, a member of a water district board in Southern California, during a public meeting. At the 2007 meeting, Alvarez introduced himself as a "retired Marine of 25 years."
"Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor," he said, according to the court's 2012 opinion. "I got wounded many times by the same guy."
In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that Alvarez also had lied when he said he had played ice hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and had once been married to a starlet from Mexico.
"Lying was his habit," Kennedy wrote.
"None of this was true," he added of Alvarez's statements about serving in the Marines. "For all the record shows, respondent's statements were but a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him."
Still, the court decided 6-3 that the remarks were protected under the Constitution.
The solution may be in amending the law that prohibits identity theft.
The Pucino family spoke in February with U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass, whose office has been researching the possibility of toughening sentences in cases where a veteran is the victim.
"We looked at it the way she wanted us to look at it, in terms of the Stolen Valor statute," Keating said in a recent interview. "But we've also been looking at a special enhanced penalty" under identity theft laws, Keating said. "We're just looking at the best way that it fits under statutes. That's the latest research we're doing in the office. That's the way we're looking at it right now."
Keating was unsure of the timetable for any proposal to step up sentencing. But he is trying to get more legal advice about a specialized penalties.
"Sometimes it moves slowly," he said. "But a lot of the laws that honor veterans or protect veterans get great bipartisan support."
Haglof Pucino said she knows it takes time to pass legislation. But, just as they did with a bill to dedicate two bridges spanning Route 6 in Bourne as the Staff Sergeant Matthew A. Pucino Bridges, she said the family is "going to push through it."
"Unfortunately, the government is kind of like the military ... hurry up and wait," said Pucino Haglof, who decorates the signs below the bridges with wreaths. "This is someone who can't speak for himself anymore, who gave his life."