Two men lied about being veterans. The judge’s sentence: Wear signs saying ‘I am a liar.’


By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: August 25, 2019

In the first days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001, a Black Hawk shuddered through a Pakistani dust storm before it crashed. Two soldiers were killed on board, including Pfc. Kristofor T. Stonesifer, a 28-year-old Army Ranger from Missoula, Mont.

Nearly 18 years after Stonesifer's obituary was written, two men who lied about their military service are being told to rewrite it by hand — along with 39 other obituaries of soldiers from Montana.

Ryan Patrick Morris, 28, and Troy Allan Nelson, 33, were both sentenced for separate crimes Friday by Cascade County District Judge Greg Pinski, following apparent bids to get resources and preferential treatment from a veterans court.

Morris received 10 years in prison for violating probation after a felony burglary and falsely claimed he was injured by an IED explosion during one of seven combat tours, The Associated Press reported. Nelson was sentenced to five years for drug possession and enrolled in a veterans court before it was discovered he isn't a veteran at all.

The judge said their claims were "abhorrent to the men and women who have actually served our country," the Great Falls Tribune reported. "You've not respected the veterans. You've not respected the court. And you haven't respected yourselves."

But within his sentencing, the Montana judge gave them a chance for parole — if they abide by certain conditions.

Both must hand-write the names of all 6,756 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to qualify for future parole, along with the obituaries of the 40 Montana soldiers in that group. They must also complete 441 hours of community service after being released from prison. That adds up to an hour per Montanan killed in combat going back to the Korean War.

Morris and Nelson must serve seven and three years, respectively, and they would be eligible for parole part of the way through if they meet those conditions, county attorney Joshua Racki said Monday.

But if they decline or fail to meet the requirements, the men must serve out their entire sentences without a shot at early release, Racki said.

Additionally, while on probation, they must wear placards on Memorial Day and Veterans Day outside the Montana Veterans Memorial with a sign that reads: "I am a liar. I am not a veteran. I stole valor. I have dishonored all veterans," the AP reported.

Veterans courts are designed to help veterans with nonviolent charges that may have been prompted by service-related issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, and funnel them to treatment rather than jail.

Both men apologized for lying to the court. "I'd like to offer my deepest apology to any veterans out there that I've disrespected," Morris told Pinski in 2016 after his original sentence.

Attorneys for both men objected to the sign stipulation, the AP reported. Mark Frisbie, who represented Morris, said his client was not charged under the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, which criminalizes false claims of service for personal benefit, but he was being punished as if he were, the AP said. Frisbie declined to comment.

Pinski cited a Supreme Court case that allowed stolen valor to be taken into account for the placard requirement.

Claire Lettow, a public defender who represented Nelson, did not return a request for comment.

The men would also be required to apologize to national veterans groups, including the American Legion, which said falsely claiming military service is a "reprehensible act committed against the women and men who serve and sacrifice for our nation," said Dan Rapkoch, a Legion spokesman.

If the men accept the conditions set by Pinski, they might start with Stonesifer's obituary.

He was remembered as an "adventurer," the AP reported after his death, and he left officer training in college to enlist because ROTC was not challenging enough for him. He was later assigned to the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment.

On Oct. 19, 2001, Stonesifer was killed in the Blackhawk helicopter crash while assigned to a search and rescue team for fellow Rangers assaulting Taliban positions in Afghanistan. He became the first Missoulian to die supporting combat operations this century.