Doug and Pam Sterner are photographed in their home in Alexandria, Va. Pam is the author of a college paper that led to the drafting of the Stolen Valor Act, aimed at curbing false claims of military valor. Doug exposes phony medal recipients. (Carolyn Kaster / The Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — Xavier Alvarez was in good company when he stood up at a public meeting and called himself a wounded war veteran who had received the top military award, the Medal of Honor.
Alvarez was lying about his medal, his wounds and his military service, but he wasn't the first man to invent war exploits.
He was, however, one of the first people prosecuted under a 2006 federal law aimed at curbing false claims of military valor.
Concerns that the law improperly limits speech and turns people into criminals for things they say, rather than do, are at the heart of the Supreme Court's review of his case and the Stolen Valor Act.
Veterans groups have come to the aid of the Obama administration, which calls the law a narrowly crafted effort to protect the system of military awards that was established during the Revolutionary War by Gen. George Washington. The high court will hear the case Wednesday, which is Washington's 280th birthday.
"They're committing fraud. They're impersonating somebody else. They take on attributes of somebody else, attributes of a hero who served honorably," said Pam Sterner, whose college term paper calling for the law wound up in the hands of members of Congress. "When you do that, impersonating someone else, that's fraud, not freedom of speech."
Civil liberties groups, writers, publishers and news media outlets, including The Associated Press, have told the justices they worry the law, and especially the administration's defense of it, could lead to more attempts by government to regulate speech.
When he established military decorations in 1782, seven years before he was elected as the nation's first president, Washington himself also prescribed severe military punishment for soldiers who purported to be medal recipients but weren't. Since then, many men have embellished their war records, and some have won special recognition.
It long has been a federal crime to wear unearned medals, but mere claims of being decorated were beyond the reach of law enforcement.
The House of Representatives has more than once voted to name a post office after men who claimed awards they never received. The Air Force named an award after a man who falsely claimed to have survived the Bataan Death March and been awarded the Silver Star in World War II. The Boxing Writers of America named its perseverance award after the late Pat Putnam of Sports Illustrated because of his made-up tale of surviving a Chinese prisoner of war camp in the Korean War and receiving a Navy Cross.
The Stolen Valor Act aimed to solve that problem, and garnered significant support in Congress during a time of war.
"The admiration and respect for the military increased dramatically after 9/11 and the false claims, as well," said Thomas A. Cottone Jr., a retired FBI agent who investigated phony award cases.
Alvarez made his claims by way of introducing himself as an elected member of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Pomona, Calif. There is nothing to suggest that he received anything in exchange or that listeners especially believed him.
Even Alvarez' lawyers acknowledged their client sometimes has trouble telling the truth. "Xavier Alvarez lied," they declare in the first sentence of their Supreme Court brief and go on to recount six separate lies in the next few lines.
He lied when he claimed he played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, married a Mexican starlet who made paparazzi swoon, was an engineer, rescued the American ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis and was shot when he went back for the U.S. flag. Alvarez also lied, they said, when he talked about his military service.
But the lies Alvarez told harmed no one, they said, so what he did couldn't be considered fraud.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down the law as an unconstitutional restraint on free speech and said the government might instead invest in an awards database that would make it harder for people to lay claim to medals they never won. Last month, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld the law in a separate case, saying the First Amendment does not always protect false statements.
The issue might never have reached this stage if not for the efforts of Sterner, and her husband, Doug.
He is a decorated Vietnam veteran who has made it his work in recent years to ensure that service members get the recognition they deserve and expose those who falsely claim acts of heroism under fire. Rather than wait for the government to act, Doug Sterner has entered nearly 100,000 award citations since Civil War in his online database, including all 3,475 Medal of Honor recipients in U.S. history. His archive is used by the Military Times newspapers, published by Gannett Co.
Pam Sterner went back to school in her early 40s at Colorado State University in Pueblo, Colo. In a political science course, she wrote a paper that grew out of her husband's frustrations over phony award claimants whose worst punishment was public embarrassment. That paper eventually led to the Stolen Valor Act.
Doug Sterner's database did not save Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, from some embarrassment when he invited cameras and reporters to watch him pin medals on an elderly Korean War veteran in June.
The veteran, Myron Brown of Utah, said his Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star were awarded belatedly, and he asked Chaffetz to present them to him publicly.
After the ceremony took place, Sterner and others raised questions about the medals and the Pentagon confirmed to Chaffetz in December that they were not authentic.
"Others have been burned by this. I have too, but I want to solve the problem," Chaffetz told the Salt Lake Tribune. He is planning a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee he leads to explore creating a government-run awards database.