FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—To the untrained eye, he might have looked like a decorated war hero.
But it didn’t take long for two Marines to decide there was something off about the uniformed man outside the military funeral, who wore medals as prestigious as the Silver Star. And when they started asking questions, they became even more convinced: The guy was a fraud — a fake soldier.
The July 19 exchange, captured on camera outside a West Palm Beach church and posted online, has now been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Those who have served in the military have responded with outrage.
“Men gave their lives for our country and our flag,” said Delray Beach retired Marine Frank D’Amato, “and this guy is taking advantage of it.”
The man in the video, who wears a name badge saying “Davis,” has not been identified. The Marines who questioned him are active duty and couldn’t talk about the incident, which is being investigated by the military.
Until recently, it was against the law to pose as a war hero. But in 2012, the U.S. struck down the Stolen Valor Act, calling it an infringement of free speech.
A new version of the act, passed last year, makes false claims about military service or honors illegal if the goal is to get free goods or other benefits.
Guardian of Valor, a private group, works to expose people who falsely claim to have served or earned medals. The man videotaped outside the funeral home in West Palm Beach is among the cases they’ve spotlighted.
“It may be your First Amendment right to lie about service to this country and medals earned,” the site’s mission says. “But it is our First Amendment right to show the world your lies.”
To that end, they post photos and background on confirmed fake war heroes in their “Hall of Shame.” The man from the funeral in West Palm is now featured on the site’s home pagehttp://guardianofvalor.com/.
Anthony Anderson, a South Carolina Army veteran who owns the Guardian of Valor site, said many people who dress up like service members want the accolades routinely given to those who serve for real. Some also angle for free meals or other perks, he said.
Anderson also said most of the uniform discrepancies that give away a phony are recognizable only to people with a military background.
“That’s the problem,” he said. “A civilian wouldn’t know the difference.”
In the local case on July 19, members of the family of the man who had died said they had also seen the uniformed man at the wake. One relative who served in the military noticed the man’s disorganized medals and decided not to say anything, family members said.
But when the funeral ended, two Marines there to carry out the military aspects of the funeral weren’t going to let it slide. In the parking lot of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, they approached the man to ask about his chest full of misplaced medals.
As the camera rolled, he claimed to be an Army sergeant major with previous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
It wasn’t adding up for the Marines. They pointed out he was wearing ribbons and medals together on his dress uniform and had the awards out of order — both violations of military dress code.
The man also had a gold tooth, another violation of uniform regulations, according to a military handbook. Some parts of his uniform didn’t match with other parts. He also wore a sergeant major rank on his beret, where typically only commissioned officers wear rank insignia.
After he bungled a question about the Army uniform regulation, the Marines told the man he was committing an act of stolen valor. He never backed down from his claims. In the end, he just got in his car and drove away.
“To claim that you earned that when you haven’t sacrificed blood, sweat and tears,” Anderson said, “is a slap in the face to those that have earned it.”
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this story