November 11, 2008 -- On a day when Americans honor those who have served their country in the military, many of whom have been wounded, physically and emotionally by war, the FBI told ABC News that it is investigating hundreds of reports of phony heroes who have lied about their military experience or the awards and medals they claim they received for their valor in combat.
"I think it is disgusting," said Mike Sanborn, a former Marine and the FBI agent currently in charge of tracking down phony war heroes.
Sanborn said he has been alerted to more than 200 cases of phony heroes in the last year and he says the problem is growing because of the two-front war — in Iraq and Afghanistan — that Americans are fighting.
ABC News reported in March that a North Carolina man, who claimed he had served as an Army Ranger on tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Panama and Grenada and had earned medals, including the Purple Heart, was found guilty of peddling a false military record in order to collect thousands of dollars in soldier disability payments.
Randall Moneymaker's claims to collect more than $18,000 in disability payments were numerous. In a Veterans Affairs compensation and pension medical exam, he claimed he "had been involved in numerous combat situations, including RPG attacks and firefights," according to the federal indictment against him.
Topping his claims, Moneymaker said he had the scars from combat service, but federal authorities said the scars match a liposuction procedure he had done. Moneymaker has been sentenced to three years in jail, according to the Army Times.
"It is despicable for anyone to say they were in the military when they were not and even more despicable to lie about receiving a medal for valor in combat," said Special Agent Thomas Cottone, Jr, formerly a lead investigator into the illegal use and wearing of military awards and decorations.
Cottone said the Stolen Valor Act, signed into law in December of 2006, made it easier to prosecute imposters posing as war heroes who lied about their medals. The law also increased the penalty, and those convicted could face prison time and a fine of up to $100,000, according to Cottone.
Just why would anyone fake a medal of honor?
"It's self esteem," said Sanborn. "If they want to be somebody they're not, its instant gratification."
Stolen valor watchdogs say the federal government should have a complete database of veterans and their military histories including the medals they were awarded in order to deter imposters and help federal authorities find and prosecute them.
Doug Sterner, a decorated Army sergeant who served in Vietnam and who maintains the most comprehensive database of military medals in the country, has been advocating for a federally run database for years. He authored much of the language in a bill pending in Congress that would mandate the Defense Department to maintain such a database.
Sterner says he gets four to six reports per week of phony war heroes who claim medals of valor. "There are so many that the FBI just can't handle them all," he said.
Sanborn said that there is limited manpower to address the issue, but nonetheless, "the word is spreading and it's getting out there that the people that are doing this will be prosecuted aggressively."