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Military Impostors Are Neither Few Nor Proud

Dec 14, 2009 – 2:08 PM
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Richard C. Paddock

Richard C. Paddock San Francisco Correspondent

(Dec. 14) -- Steven Douglas Burton wore the Marine Corps uniform proudly. He had rows of medals, including a prestigious Navy Cross, a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

He posted a photo of himself in uniform and blogged about serving one tour of duty in Afghanistan and four in Iraq. He was at the Battle of Fallujah, he said, and praised the doctors who "patched us up."

But Burton wasn't a hero. He was a fraud who purchased medals online.

U.S. Attorney's Office
Steven Douglas Burton's Web site contained photos of him wearing the Marine Corps uniform proudly. He had rows of medals, including a prestigious Navy Cross, a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

A scam that began two years ago when Burton wore a Marine Corps uniform as a Halloween party costume ended Monday with a guilty plea in federal court in Riverside, Calif.

Burton, a 39-year-old bank employee from Palm Springs, was unmasked after he wore the uniform of a Marine lieutenant colonel to his 20-year high school reunion. A classmate who was a Navy commander became suspicious of his story, got him to pose for a photo and handed it over to the FBI.

Burton pleaded guilty to a single count of the unauthorized wearing of a military medal. He faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine for violating the Stolen Valor Act, which prohibits wearing an unearned medal or falsely claiming to have earned one.

"The defendant was wearing some of the highest military honors given in this country for valor," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Akrotirianakis, who prosecuted the case. "He never served in the military."

Burton is one of five men -- and the second in two weeks -- successfully prosecuted in California since the 2006 law toughened penalties against fraudulent claims of heroism. That is the largest number of phony heroes prosecuted in any state, said independent watchdog Doug Sterner, who operates the Home of Heroes Web site in Pueblo, Colo.

Sterner and others who track impostors say there are thousands more like Burton who falsely claim military honors or lie about their supposed wartime bravery but have never been prosecuted.

Mary Schantag, co-founder and researcher for the POW Network, said her group's Web site lists 3,500 "phonies and wannabes" who claim to be former prisoners of war, medal recipients, members of elite forces or heroic combat veterans. She said she receives new allegations daily.

"This is an epidemic," said Schantag, who is based in Skidmore, Mo. "It's almost a mass identity theft of people who earned their status as heroes."

Some, like Burton, are apparently motivated to make false claims by a desire to pump up their self-esteem. But more often, a false claim of bravery is part of a con to steal money, get a better job, illegally claim veteran's benefits or entice a woman into a romantic relationship.

"It pretty much boils down to ego, women or money," Schantag said.

Many impostors get away with their claims for years because the military does not keep a list of most medal recipients. Sterner, who pushed for adoption of the Stolen Valor Act, is now campaigning for legislation that would require the Pentagon to maintain a list of all the men and women it has honored.

"How many people do you see out there claiming they won an Academy Award and didn't?" he asked. "None, since there is a list of Academy Award recipients. How many phonies are claiming Silver Stars? They are all over the country because there is no list of Silver Star recipients."

Sterner has compiled his own list of more than 26,000 medal winners and posted it on the Hall of Valor Web site, sponsored by the Military Times. Members of the public can search the database to verify the names of true medal winners. Earlier this month, AMVETS launched, where people can report suspected impostors.

Burton began attracting attention in February 2008, when he wrote to a veterans' Web site and sent a photo of himself in uniform taken on Coronado Island, near San Diego.

The letter discussed his supposed wartime experiences and a moving encounter with ex-Marines on Coronado. He signed the letter, "MGySgt Burton, 1st Division, USMC," indicating his rank as master gunnery sergeant.

Some vets who saw his post questioned his terminology and the abbreviation. When asked in an e-mail why his name did not turn up on a list of Navy Cross winners, he replied that Burton was his first name and that he does not provide his full name online.

The exchange prompted Schantag to post Burton's photo and letter on her site of "phonies and wannabes." She also posted Burton's e-mail reply, which says, "If people are hunting around for information on me or trying to match my name to medals I'm wearing, they are not looking in the right place."

Even though he knew he was under suspicion, Burton wore the lieutenant colonel's uniform to his October 2008 reunion. Classmates at Alhambra High School in Martinez remember him as an unlikely candidate to become a highly decorated Marine. His regalia aroused the suspicion of Navy Cmdr. Colleen Salonga, who obtained Burton's photo by asking if they could pose together.

Burton was arrested a year later on Veterans Day and initially pleaded not guilty. But on Dec. 3, he signed a plea agreement admitting in detail to the crime.

He chose the Marine Corps uniform because he liked it best of all the services, the plea agreement said. He purchased uniforms and equipment online and at military stores, acquiring at least 15 medals. His attorney, Michael DeFrank, did not return phone calls from Sphere.

"Defendant wore the USMC uniform to the reunion because he wanted to impress his high school classmates," the plea agreement says.

Last week, another high-profile impostor pleaded guilty in Sacramento. Kenneth Jerome Nelson, the unofficial caretaker of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento, had become something of a local celebrity. His accounts of his bravery during the war had been featured in newspaper and television stories.

Nelson, 60, said he was a Marine in Vietnam and was wounded three times, once while carrying an injured buddy on his back for 26 miles. He sometimes wore a Silver Star and said he had received three Purple Hearts.

In fact, Nelson never served in combat in Vietnam or anywhere else.

Last week -- on Pearl Harbor Day -- he pleaded guilty in federal court to wearing a Silver Star he did not earn. As part of the plea agreement, Nelson surrendered his medals.

Despite the successful prosecutions in California, Sterner and Schantag say authorities often don't take phony heroes as seriously as they should.

"In the vast majority of these cases, there is additional fraud going on," Sterner said.

Women are particular targets, and dating Web sites are a common place to encounter phony heroes, Schantag said. Some women who were tricked have lost their homes, contracted AIDS or gotten pregnant and then been abandoned.

"It's not a victimless crime," she said. "They are looking for women with money, secure jobs or inheritances. Prosecution isn't fast enough sometimes to prevent further victims. We hear from woman after woman after woman, and nothing is being done."

Schantag also said that punishment is often too light. Worst of all, she said, is ordering an impostor to perform community service for a veterans' organization.

"Don't put them with the real heroes, where they can learn more stories," she said. "Have them dig graves in Arlington National Cemetery."
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