Pinning crime on fake heroes N.J. agent helps expose and convict those with bogus U.S. medals.

Posted: February 11, 2004

New Jersey FBI Agent Thomas A. Cottone Jr. remembers feeling uneasy that day a year ago when he was made an honorary Marine during a Washington ceremony.

He looked at the mass of medals and insignia on the uniform of a fellow honoree, Navy Capt. Roger Edwards, and wondered how Edwards had achieved so much.

"I checked him out, and most of it was fake," Cottone said. "He was in the service but never earned all the valor awards he was wearing."

Edwards, an ordained Episcopal priest in Maryland, faces a general court-martial March 29 for the unauthorized wearing of a Silver Star, the third-highest honor for valor; a Distinguished Flying Cross; a Purple Heart; a parachutist's qualification badge; and Special Forces Medical Corps insignia.

Across the country, people of all professions and backgrounds are exposed, and sometimes convicted, for exaggerating their military records, wearing decorations they did not earn, even trafficking in the nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor.

And in many cases, Cottone is the one who has caught them - sometimes at their homes, sometimes shortly before a speech at a patriotic event or at a military memorabilia show.

At a time when reporters are scrutinizing the military records of President Bush and his front-running Democratic challenger, John Kerry, Cottone is heading a nationwide effort to bring military impostors to justice.

The agent spends most of his time investigating bank robberies, kidnappings, terrorist activities, and hijackings out of his West Paterson, N.J., office, but he takes special pleasure in protecting the honor of veterans.

Hundreds of tips about phony heroes and fake medals have come in since his work began nine years ago, and the FBI is investigating several cases across the country.

Many people claim to have Medals of Honor to gain some benefit offered by states, such as free special license tags, free hunting and fishing licenses, and tax breaks. In Virginia, 642 people checked a box on tax forms last year claiming to have the medal, which makes military retirement income free of state taxes. But there are only four living recipients in Virginia and 132 in the country.

Others are selling lesser medals, insignia and badges on eBay.

Federal statute prohibits wearing a Medal of Honor that is not earned and outlaws its sale and manufacture. It also bars wearing other military medals that are not earned and does not allow their sale and manufacture except by those authorized by the government.

"Some people do it for financial gain, some for instant recognition and fame," Cottone said. "They have big egos and want to impress family and friends.

"But these are people buying valor, not earning it. They're purchasing awards, telling fantastic stories . . . and they're a disgrace to anyone who has ever been in the service."

Cottone, who was made an honorary Marine for his efforts, has been praised by military officials and veterans. He also received the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

B.G. "Jug" Burkett, military researcher and coauthor of Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History, said the misuse of medals and false claims of military service were pervasive.

"There are tens of thousands of these guys out there," Burkett said, adding that they included members of Congress, judges and celebrities. "And they're in the Veterans Administration sucking up the taxpayers' money."

Victoria Leslie of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in South Carolina said the public has "a heightened sense of patriotism since 9/11 and is more interested in the military, and that makes them more knowledgeable. And the more knowledge you have, the more you recognize these things."

Cottone, Burkett, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, and veterans' groups regularly receive tips and have checked out of thousands of hero wannabes. Many have been found wanting.

In the last few years, the list has included:

Dallas Ricker, a retired Marine first sergeant from Birmingham, Ala., who wore the Navy Cross, the Navy's second-highest award for valor. Ricker admitted this week that he had never received it, Cottone said. Ricker, chairman of a nonprofit group that honored two of the Marine Corps' highest-ranking generals last summer in Washington, is considering a guilty plea.

Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian on the faculty of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, who was suspended for one year without pay in 2001 for concocting a phony tale of war service in Vietnam. He spent his years in the military teaching history at West Point.

Tim Johnson, former manager of baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, who was fired in 1999 after the team learned he had made up stories about service in Vietnam. He had never been there.

Former U.S. Rep. Wes Cooley (D., Ore.), who lost his bid for reelection after lying in 1995 about serving with Special Forces during the Korean War. He was in basic training when the war ended.

Illinois Circuit Court Judge Michael F. O'Brien, who was forced to quit his judgeship or face prosecution in 1995 after his claim of earning two Medals of Honor was found to be false.

Cottone began his campaign against impostors and trafficking in medals in his own backyard. He went undercover at a military collectibles/gun show in April 1995 in Totowa, N.J., near his West Paterson office.

"There was an individual there who had a whole display of medals, and among them were two Medals of Honor - an Army Medal of Honor for $510 and an Air Force Medal of Honor for $485," he said. "He sold me the two, and I identified myself as an FBI agent and told him he had a problem."

Agents arrested Robert S. Nemser at his home in East Brunswick, N.J. He was the first charged under a 1994 law that toughened the penalties for selling a Medal of Honor or falsely presenting oneself as a recipient. Violators face up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Corporations can be fined up to $200,000. The fraudulent use of other medals and decorations carries less serious fines and jail time set by the court.

"I began wondering where the medals came from, since they were so well made," Cottone said. "I asked the Pentagon, and they told me about a Long Island, N.Y., company, the only one who made them."

Cottone said the FBI had tracked the medals to HLI Lordship Industries of Hauppauge, which admitted in 1996 to selling 300 unauthorized medals for $75 each from 1991 to 1994. The firm was fined $80,000, forced to turn over $22,500 it received from illegal sales, and prevented from receiving government contracts for 15 years, which cost the company millions of dollars, the agent said.

Among those working hardest to uncover fakers was Mitchell Paige, a World War II recipient of the Medal of Honor who distinguished himself during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. With all the men in his platoon killed or wounded, the native of McKeesport, Pa., fired on Japanese troops until reinforcements arrived, then led a bayonet charge that drove back the enemy line.

For a half-century, Paige led an effort to guard the integrity of the Medal of Honor. The Marine colonel fought for the stronger penalties enacted in 1994 and worked closely with Cottone until his death last year.

"It's just terrible when you see these people wearing a medal they didn't earn," said former Army Master Sgt. Nicholas Oresko, 87, a Medal of Honor recipient who lives in Tenafly, N.J. "It makes me angry."

Oresko braved machine-gun fire near Tettington, Germany, in 1945 to throw a grenade into an enemy bunker, and he shot and killed those who survived the blast. He was then shot by a German machine gunner but still attacked and destroyed a second bunker.

A Vietnam War recipient of the medal, Jack Jacobs, 58, said he had trouble finding an adequate penalty for the impostors. Jail time? Community service? Fines?

"Emotionally, you want the worst possible thing to happen to these people. You feel some sort of personal violation," said Jacobs, of Millington, N.J.

The former Army captain, now a retired colonel, was an adviser when South Vietnamese troops came under fire in Kien Phong Province in 1968. He directed air strikes on enemy positions and, though seriously wounded, assumed command and helped evacuate others.

Impostors "believe this is a victimless crime, and it doesn't matter in the end. But it hurts all of us when people lie about their accomplishments," he said.

Burkett, the Stolen Valor author, called the false claims "a form of sacrilege."

"The Constitution does not guarantee freedom; that's a piece of paper. The only thing that guarantees your rights is the willingness of citizens to stand up against our enemies. And one of the only things they get is decorations - 62 cents of material, but they're the esteem of the nation bestowed upon you. When it's desecrated, it weakens our resolve. It's an emotional thing . . . and you can't understand the depth of that emotion unless you were there."

For Cottone, who never served in the military, protecting veterans and their medals is a solemn calling. "It means a lot to them, and to me," he said. "We're not just protecting the medal, but the action that resulted in that medal. It's not just a piece of jewelry. People lost their lives."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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