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Vets find military records often embellished

By RYAN GILLESPIE | Orlando Sentinel (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 23, 2016

A mayoral candidate in Florida posted a picture on his campaign's Facebook page of himself wearing a hat declaring him "Purple Heart Combat Veteran."

George Rosario's campaign website also said he had been awarded two Bronze Stars in addition to a Purple Heart while serving in the Army. The problem is, Rosario doesn't have a Purple Heart, which is awarded to soldiers who were killed or injured in battle, nor a Bronze Star, awarded to soldiers who showed heroic or meritorious achievement — let alone two.

The claims — which Rosario's campaign manager blamed on "miscommunication" — were spotted recently by a retired Army veteran who spends his free time catching people he believes are guilty of so-called "stolen valor."

Embellishing one's military service is becoming more and more common nationwide, said Mike Vitale of Clermont, who met with Rosario about the misrepresentations, which have since been removed the candidate's website.

A bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2013 makes it criminal to falsely claim various military medals — including the Purple Heart — with the intent of personal or financial gain. The Bronze Star is not covered under the Stolen Valor Act. The First Amendment protects those who falsely claim military achievement if they aren't seeking gain.

"These guys can perpetuate a fraud because 95 percent of the people they come in contact with haven't been in the military," said Vitale, a retired Army first sergeant. "You may be protected by the First Amendment, and it may protect you from the government, but it doesn't protect you from me."

Among those also keeping watch on bogus claims is Mark Seavey with the national office of the American Legion. Seavey exposes people daily for exaggerating their military service. He also works with a group called thisainthell.us, which lists hundreds of stolen valor cases on its website.

At The Legion, he breaks offenders into two categories: embellishers and those who never served.

Seavey, who left the Army as a sergeant after serving 11 years in the Army and the National Guard including deployments to Afghanistan and Bosnia, said during the Vietnam War it was much less likely for someone to falsely claim to be a soldier. That's changed, he said.

"The general populous holds military service in much higher esteem now," he said. "The American people, whether they support the wars or not, tend to support the warriors."

Seavey said he receives numerous complaints and allegations weekly. He requests relevant military documentation to confirm a veteran's service and accomplishments. If the claims are confirmed to be exaggerated, Seavey confronts the culprit.

He said politicians are often caught exaggerating their military past. In 2012, Ken Aden, the Democratic nominee for Arkansas 3rd Congressional District, dropped out of the race after reports called into question his claim that he had been a Green Beret, ABC News reported. It was later reported that Aden failed out of Special Forces training and was removed from the program.

Retired Marine Wayne Ridgley, who lost a leg in Vietnam, told the Tampa Bay Times in June that he misrepresented his service by showcasing himself as a gunnery sergeant with numerous ribbons and medals because he wanted to make others feel he was more important.

Never mind that he legitimately earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, according to the newspaper. He called gunnery sergeant "one of the best ranks" in the Marine Corps.

Seavey said he finds embellished cases especially disturbing.

"Those are the ones that are really sad to us, because everyone in the military has a job to do, and we do it as a team," Seavey said. "In the end, it lessens what the people in the background doing the hardest work they can do."

Rosario is among three Groveland mayoral candidates in the Nov. 8 election. His campaign manager, Edmund Meyer, acknowledged Rosario didn't receive a Purple Heart and called the claim of earning two Bronze Stars an "honest mistake."

Rosario applied for a Purple Heart with an Army panel thinking it would be a quick process. However, he got caught up in the campaign and didn't have time for the appeal, Rosario said in a statement through his campaign manager.

Meyer provided paperwork showing Rosario earned a Southwest Asia Service Medal — which Meyer said was emblazoned with two bronze service stars. This is what was referred to as "two Bronze Stars" on Rosario's campaign website, he said.

The website was edited and Rosario addressed the complaints last week at a candidate forum in the Lake County city west of Orlando. Rosario told voters he'll continue to try to obtain a Purple Heart, and stressed he's a proud veteran who was awarded medals for service in Southwest Asia.

"Mistakes happen and things happen," Rosario said Saturday. "If it hurt anyone, I apologize to all the veterans in Groveland and in the country."

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©2016 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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