House hits liars who say they're heroes

WASHINGTON - The House on Thursday passed a bill to punish people who lie about having been awarded decorations for combat heroism.

The 410-3 vote marks the second try by Congress to crack down on fraudulent statements about military service. A "stolen valor" law enacted in 2006 was struck down by the Supreme Court on free speech grounds.

The latest version is a narrower one, targeting offenders who make false claims about military records to gain personally or financially, such as obtaining benefits or a job reserved for a veteran. Bowing further to the Supreme Court's First Amendment guidance, fraudsters who merely wear medals they did not earn are not covered by the legislation, which was sponsored by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.

The narrower focus "helps ensure that this law will pass constitutional scrutiny while at the same time achieving its primary objective, which is to preserve and protect the honor and integrity of military service and awards," said Heck, an Iraq War veteran and a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

People who lie about having served in the military, or having earned combat decorations, occupy a low rung in the esteem of veterans. The penalty for violating the law would include a fine or prison for up to a year, or both.

It was not clear whether the Senate will take up a stolen valor bill in the short time remaining in this year's session, but an aide said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has supported such legislation in the past.

The Democrat-controlled Senate may take up a bill by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., called the MIlitary Service Integrity Act that addresses the stolen valor problem, according to Doug Sterner, an activist who researches and attempts to expose those who falsely claim military honors.

"As far as a bill is concerned, we need it, and the Supreme Court understood we needed it even when it struck down the earlier bill," Sterner said.

"The bottom line is we have fakers who are coming out of the woodwork still," Sterner said. "I welcome passage of any stolen valor act that passes constitutional muster."

Contact Stephens Washington News Bureau Chief Stephan R. Tetreault at 202-783-1760 or Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.