In recent days an Associated Press story about a South Texas man impersonating a Marine Sergeant Major has been in the news. According the AP, “In appearances throughout the Rio Grande Valley, J.C. Ortiz said his Marine career included four tours of duty in Vietnam, seven Purple Hearts and ascendancy to the rank of Sergeant Major.”
Ortiz also claimed to have been awarded two Silver Star medals, two Bronze Star medals and had served a total of 39 years in the armed forces. This all fell apart when the McAllen Monitor confronted him. The newspaper, which earlier had given Ortiz/Brown its inaugural “Spirit of Freedom Award” for service in uniform, had investigated his past after veterans voiced strong doubts about his stories.
When everything was unraveled, Ortiz, who was born Gerrald J. Brown was not even using his true name. Ortiz or Brown cannot claim legitimate veteran status, let alone that of a heroic Marine Sergeant Major with 39 years service. He was actually a Private who served 3 1/2 years in the Marine Corps, never served in Vietnam or outside the United States and culminated a less than distinguished tour of duty by going AWOL, deserting his post and being given an Undesirable Discharge in 1962.
For several years, until his fraud was revealed, Oritz/Brown attended veterans affairs, spoke at patriotic events, offered comfort to grieving families and even awaited on the arrival of fallen service personnel who had been killed in action while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If this were an isolated incident, it would still be worthy of media attention, public scorn and legal action. However, the Ortiz/Brown case is far from being the story of a single pretender. Across the United States there have been multiple cases of people impersonating military officers and enlisted personnel. There have been claims of heroic acts that have garnered these fraudulent warriors unearned praise and adulation from communities in almost every state. In the past ten years, the FBI has investigated more than 100 military impersonation cases. At this time 20 such cases are under investigation.
And what is done when fake heroes are uncovered? Very little! There are laws against impersonating military personnel by wearing an unauthorized uniform. There are also laws against a person wearing medals they have not been awarded. Even when the phony heroes are caught courts don’t seem to think the offenses are serious breaches of the public trust. . Current law calls for a maximum of six months in jail and a $5,000 fine for impersonating military personnel or wearing unauthorized medals. Those few who have been convicted of such charges have seldom served time behind bars or even paid the maximum fine.
For example an Illinois district judge by the name of Michael O’Brien displayed two Medals of Honor in his chambers. Everyone thought they had one of the country’s greatest heroes in their midst. They were wrong. The judge had not received a single MoH, let alone be awarded two such medals, the nation’s highest recognition for military valor.
Was O’Brien punished for this fraud? No! It is legal in the United States to buy, sell or trade medals or military apparel. It is legal to display these items. Because the judge had only displayed the medals in his office, no crime had been committed.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, on July 2, 2006 wrote about a proposed new law that targets those who steal the valor of military personnel by fraud and/or impersonation.
“A bill- the Stolen Valor Act - making its way through Congress would increase penalties for imposters and help prosecutors go after phonies.
“The bill introduced last year by Democratic Rep. John Salazar, of Colorado, picked up 127 co-sponsors. A Senate version of the bill got support on June 14 from Philadelphia Republican Arlen Spector, whose support insiders say virtually guarantees the bill will make it out of the Senate judiciary committee he chairs. Salazar has said he expects the bill to move through congress before the session ends in October.”
This new legislation would double current penalties, make the crime a felony and allow prosecution not only for wearing the uniforms or medals, but for falsely claiming either verbally or in writing to have served, held rank or earned awards.
In the case of Ortiz/Brown it is most likely that little will happen in the way of punishment. He is already claiming that the speeches he made and the funerals he attended were all done to honor those who had served their country or had fallen. He is trying desperately to create sympathy in the community.
The issues that bother most veterans are Ortiz/Brown wearing seven Purple Hearts and presenting himself to be a Marine Sergeant Major.
Sergeant Major or Master Gunnery Sergeant (E-9) are the most senior enlisted ranks in the Marine Corps. Those who attain those positions have dedicated themselves to multiple years of service, dedication to duty, remote assignments, numerous courses of study and uncountable hours of training. With few exceptions those of this rank have also served across the United States and overseas…including combat.
To have a person who could not satisfactorily complete one term of enlistment and earn an honorable discharge, a person who has failed to embrace the Marine creed of Duty, Honor and Country portray himself as an individual who had earned this rank and honor is beyond reprehensible. Moreover, it diminishes the accomplishments of those who earned the title and rank. For such an act Ortiz/Brown needs to be more than castigated. He needs to be denunciated in the extreme by all citizenry who hear of his fraud.
All who have faced enemy forces on behalf of America should reserve their greatest contempt for the false claim of earning seven Purple Hearts.
The Purple Heart is the oldest recognition of valor in the armed forces. It was established by General George Washington on August 7, 1782 and is awarded by the President of the United States only to those who have been wounded in action against the enemy or were killed in action.
When Ortiz/Brown stood in front of those grieving families as they buried their husbands and sons he was wearing a ribbon representing multiple Purple Heart awards. This is the same small purple medal those families received from the government as a token of the life taken all too soon. For Ortiz/Brown to wear the same decoration is more than just a fraud or stolen valor. It is an abomination.