On Monday, The New York Times published a shocking story on Richard Blumenthal, current Connecticut Attorney General, and frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for Chris Dodd’s Senate seat. On at least one occasion, Blumenthal suggested that he served in the Vietnam war.
“We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam,” Mr. Blumenthal said to the group gathered in Norwalk in March 2008. “And you exemplify it. Whatever we think about the war, whatever we call it — Afghanistan or Iraq — we owe our military men and women unconditional support.”
In fact, Blumenthal obtained five deferments to avoid going to Vietnam, and as a member of the Marine Reserves never went abroad, instead conducting drills and performing community work in D.C. and New Haven. While the Times couldn’t find other examples of Mr. Blumenthal misrepresenting his service history, it did indict his campaign for failing to correct numerous mistakes in the press, with multiple news sources writing about his service in Vietnam. Politicians lying, even about their qualifications, is no new thing. But sometimes, lying can be illegal.
Unsurprisingly, some veterans are furious over this newest scandal involving military service exaggeration. Lies involving military service have become such an issue, particularly over Iraq and Afghanistan service, that Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 (signed into law in 2006), which I first read a while ago as the subject of a constitutional/1st Amendment challenge in federal courts. According to this law:
Whoever falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States, any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces, the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration, or medal, or any colorable imitation of such item shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than six months, or both.
The Day Newspaper of New London reported on one Vietnam vet, “standing in front of the state Capitol Tuesday morning, waving a U.S. Marine Corps flag on a white plastic pole, holding a white dry-erase board on which he had written the following slogan: Prosecute Blumenthal Stolen Valor Act” However, even Rob Simmons, a three-term Congressman from Connecticut and Vietnam vet who voted for the law, who has called for Blumenthal to apologize publicly to Vietnam vets, has said the law probably wouldn’t cover it. “Simmons, who voted for the act while a member of the House of Representatives in 2005, said he did not believe it would apply to Blumenthal’s remarks, since the law is narrowly tailored to affect those who falsely claim medals or other awards won in combat.”
From watching HBO’s The Pacific (which everyone should watch, great show), and researching some of the real-life characters this weekend, I found out that the military actually grants medals across the board for service in a particular war. Bob Leckie, for example, got the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, along with everyone else who served in the Pacific Theater during WWII.
There is a corresponding medal for Vietnam service, the Vietnam Service Medal, that was, at least according to Wikipedia, “awarded to all members of the United States Armed Forces serving in Vietnam and contiguous waters or airspace thereover.”
Does saying “I served in Vietnam” represent that you received the medal automatically given to all those who served in Vietnam, and thus open the door for prosecution?
Technically, I think it does represent medal-winning, insofar as one intends to communicate the logical implications of a statement. If you say that you played on the 2009 World Series Championship Yankees, you are representing you have a World Series ring. If you say that you graduated from Harvard, it’s reasonable and expected for listeners to assume you have an actual degree from Harvard. Being awarded a World Series ring, a degree, and a service medal are all necessary conditions of their respective accomplishments. Since all the service medal demonstrates is physical presence, as a member of the military, in Vietnam, I think Blumenthal enjoyed the same functional benefit from saying he “served in Vietnam” as if he had worn the Vietnam Service Medal.
This probably isn’t enough for a prosecution, based on the legislative intent of narrow-tailoring and what seems like a simple misstatement by Blumenthal, who was otherwise careful to suggest that he only served during the Vietnam period. Still, if a state Attorney General and Senate candidate were ever prosecuted (under a Justice Department controlled by his own party, no less), or even threatened with prosecution, for misrepresenting military service, it would go a long way toward publicizing the problem of and punishment for stolen valor.
It’s interesting to imagine what could have happened if Blumenthal had been asked by an audience member at one of these rallies, “where do you keep your service medal?” or “were you harassed on the streets by protesters when they saw your Vietnam Service Medal on your uniform?” Depending on the answers, a political gaffe could have turned into a federal crime.
This story from the Huffington Post on Orrin Hatch’s amendment to the Stolen Valor Act that would ban false claims of military service pretty much confirms that from a legislative point of view, Congress did not think a false claim of service was covered by the original law.