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Fake war hero sentenced to probation, must pay back stolen benefits

A former Marine from St. Cloud who lied about having fought in Vietnam was sentenced to probation on Friday and must reimburse the government for benefits he fraudulently obtained, a federal judge ruled.

Four of his fellow members of the American Legion wrote letters supporting Walter Eatman, 68, according to a motion filed by Eatman's attorney.

"As long as we have known (Walt), he has had the interest of the American Legion, and the U.S. Veterans, ahead of anything else," wrote Gerald A. Fairman Sr., commander of American Legion Post 183 in Fern Park.

The defense argued that Eatman should not go to prison partly because he and his wife are raising their granddaughter.

Eatman, known as "Walt" and "Sandman," was sentenced to five years of probation. He also must pay the government back $53,270 for medical treatment to which he was not entitled. He could have received up to 15 years in prison.

Prosecutors initially said he stole about $106,000 in government money and benefits, including medication and mental-health counseling for post-traumatic stress syndrome, by lying about having been in combat in Vietnam.

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara, who sentenced Eatman in his Tampa courtroom, reduced the amount after the Department of Veterans Affairs decided that Eatman did qualify for treatment for hearing problems.

Eatman falsely claimed he received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star after serving in Vietnam, court records show. He was in the service from August 1965 to August 1967, but he was not in combat.

He pleaded guilty Feb. 27 to theft of government funds and making false statements.

Prosecutors started investigating Eatman after he tried to have his Veterans Affairs benefits increased in September 2010, claiming he suffered from PTSD.

Eatman is a longtime member the American Legion who has been active in Post 80 in St. Cloud and has held leadership positions in the state organization.

He did not respond to calls seeking comment.

sjacobson@tribune.com or 407-540-5981

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