When New Jersey FBI agent Thomas A. Cottone Jr. became an honorary Marine last year in a Washington, D.C., ceremony, he saw the mass of medals and insignia on the uniform of fellow honoree Navy Capt. Roger Edwards and wondered how Edwards had achieved so much, says the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I checked him out, and most of it was fake,” Cottone said. “He was in the service but never earned all the valor awards he was wearing.” Edwards, an ordained Episcopal priest in Maryland, faces a general court-martial next month for the unauthorized wearing of five honors, including a Purple Heart.
People of all professions and backgrounds have been exposed and sometimes convicted for exaggerating their military records, wearing decorations they did not earn, even trafficking in the highest award, the Medal of Honor.
In many cases, Cottone caught them, at their homes, before a speech at a patriotic event, or at a military memorabilia show. At a time when the military records of President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry are being scrutinized, Cottone is heading a nationwide effort to bring military impostors to justice. Hundreds of tips about phony heroes and fake medals have come in since his work began nine years ago; the FBI is investigating several cases across the country.
Many people claim to have Medals of Honor to gain some benefit offered by states, such as free special license tags, free hunting, and fishing licenses, and tax breaks. In Virginia, 642 people checked a box on tax forms last year claiming to have the medal, which makes military retirement income free of state taxes. But there are only four living recipients in Virginia and 132 in the country. Others are selling lesser medals, insignia, and badges on eBay.
“Some people do it for financial gain, some for instant recognition and fame,” Cottone said. “They have big egos and want to impress family and friends. But these are people buying valor, not earning it. They’re purchasing awards, telling fantastic stories… and they’re a disgrace to anyone who has ever been in the service.”