Veterans find former legion official lied about his service, heroism
By CLIFFORD DAVIS | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville (TNS) | Published: June 11, 2015
John "J.J." Lavoie enjoyed an honorable career of more than 20 years in the United States Marines.
Though the retired master sergeant never stepped foot on Vietnamese soil, he had a solid service record of which he could be proud.
So why Lavoie frequently and publicly sported a slew of medals he never earned — including the Silver Star, Bronze Star with Valor and Purple Heart — is anyone's guess.
The issue of stolen valor has risen to the forefront in the military and veterans community. Photos and videos of those caught fraudulently wearing uniforms or military awards regularly make the rounds on veterans websites and Facebook feeds, prompting disdain and anger among those who served.
Stolen valor is especially important to them because many knew friends who died earning the same medals the imposters wear dishonestly.
In a few incidents, schemers actually used their phony stories to obtain lucrative government jobs and contracts.
One man, William E. Clark, even managed to land himself a job as head of security at the Palisades nuclear power plant in Covert, Mich.
When Bob Adelhelm first noticed Lavoie, the first thing that struck him was the stack of awards and badges bristling on the retired Marine's chest.
The pair was at a ceremony to award a member of Bishop Kenny's NJROTC with a college scholarship last year. The Jacksonville Semper Fidelis Society, which Adelhelm founded, was presenting a scholarship to a cadet.
Lavoie was there as well, representing the American Legion.
"He looked like a mini-Chesty Puller," Adelhelm said, referencing the famous Marine who earned five Navy Crosses fighting from jungles in South America to Pacific Islands in World War II and eventually Korea.
Adelhelm didn't think much of it. He knew, from his own 23-year career as a Marine officer, that many Marines returned from Vietnam highly decorated and all the ribbons and badges were correctly placed — almost.
A few weeks later at the rededication of the American Legion's eternal flame at Evergreen Cemetery, the two met again.
"When I got closer to him, I thought I saw a 'V' on his Silver Star," Adelhelm said. "So I snapped a picture."
The Silver Star, as the retired lieutenant colonel knew, is already an award for valor. A "V" device, signifying a particular act of valor on lesser awards like the Bronze Star, isn't attached to a Silver Star.
Tony D'Aleo, president of the Jacksonville chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, noticed something else: a Vietnam Service Ribbon. D'Aleo would know, he earned three Purple Hearts and fought in the battles of Khe Sahn and Hue City.
For months, Adelhelm festered and stewed over what he saw.
"This past time we went back to Bishop Kenny, I was waiting for him and he showed up dressed the same way in his dress blues," Adelhelm said. "I confronted him. I went up to him and said, "You know you don't wear a 'V' device on a Silver Star."
Lavoie told him that was the way it was awarded to him, Adelhelm said.
"I beg to differ with you," he told Lavoie. "I had 23 years in the Marine Corps, I know a little bit about awards.
"A Silver Star is an award for valor, you don't have to put a 'V' device on it."
As Lavoie walked away, Adelhelm saw him pulling the "V" off the award.
"That's when I started pursuing it," Adelhelm said.
Adelhelm and D'Aleo notified Lavoie's American Legion Post 88 about their suspicions.
As is standard practice, the post denied the men's request to provide Lavoie's military records and didn't investigate the matter any further.
Brian Gibson, the post's commander, said he doesn't question a member's honor if there is only suspicion involved and no evidence.
Gibson acknowledged Lavoie was a former commander of the post and often represented it at ceremonies across the city.
"All I can do as commander is try to take care of my members and address the facts that are in front of me," Gibson said. "Until Saturday, all I had was someone's suspicions."
Adelhelm decided to pursue the matter on his own. He reached out to the Times-Union to find out how to obtain Lavoie's records — those results came back Saturday from the U.S. National Personnel Records Center.
The records lay out a career that spanned 1972 to 1993. Lavoie's time was spent mostly with maintenance battalions.
His highest awards were three Navy commendation medals.
Contacted for comment by The Times-Union, Lavoie hung up his phone.
After receiving the records, the American Legion's 5th District commander that oversees the Jacksonville post, Tom Gora, said a full investigation is underway.
"Nobody in the American Legion is happy with what we've seen," Gora said. "I don't think that post commander probably realized the seriousness of it."
Though Gora said district and state leadership will "definitely advise" Post 88 on what to do, the ultimate responsibility lies with the post and its members.
"By the end of next week, we will have completed our investigation," Gora said Monday. "Then I'll put it on paper and send a copy to the department commander and the post.
"Then it will be up to the post as to what it plans to do with JJ's membership."
As for Adelhelm, he said he takes no pleasure finding out Lavoie's medals were phonies.
"We have to police our own," he said. "If we don't, then we are undeserving of the admiration of our country.
"We have to set the example and let all see that we can police our own and, equally important, we expect strict adherence to values like honor, integrity and courage."
RECENT HISTORY OF STOLEN VALOR
The Stolen Valor Act of 2005 made fraudulent claims of military awards a federal misdemeanor. It imposed fines and imprisonment for up to one year.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in a 6-3 decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that justices "concluded that the Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment."
However, the court left open the idea that the law could pass in a "less-burdensome way."
In 2013, President Barack Obama signed in to law the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, which added the one major caveat that the person making the false claims must have done it, "with intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit."
Clifford Davis: (904) 359-4103
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