Laws making it harder for someone to pretend they served in the British armed forces should be created to prevent the “cheapening” of the country’s veterans, the head of a leading military charity has said.
Dr Hugh Milroy, the CEO of Veterans Aid, said the Government should consider a UK equivalent to America’s Stolen Valour Act, under which it is a crime to make false claims about military decorations.
In the UK, pretending to have served in the armed forces is only illegal if the person doing so stands to make financial gain, for which they can be pursued for fraud. But prosecutions for such offences are almost unheard of, and previous attempts to persuade the Government to toughen the law have been ignored.
“I think now is the time to bring in a Stolen Valour Act in this country,” Dr Milroy said. “Failing to do this demeans military service. Medals are hard earned, and if someone is sporting a chest-full of medals that are made up, it demeans the whole process and breaks our trust with the public.”
He added that the phenomenon was “much more common than people think” and may prevent genuine veterans from getting help, as charities wasted time on false claims. He said he knew of numerous cases where homeless people had pretended to be veterans or exaggerated their military service to win sympathy.
One person sleeping rough in London claimed to have seen his friend’s head shot off in Northern Ireland when he “had in fact served for two weekends in the TA”, he said. Another person claimed to have served with the “Royal Warwickshire Dog Handlers”, which does not exist.
Established charities such as Veterans Aid and ABF The Soldiers’ Charity – both supported by The Independent’s appeal for Homeless Veterans – can check if people approaching them are genuine by asking for a unique service number. But smaller charities and members of the public can be fooled, Dr Milroy said.
People who falsely claim to have served in the armed forces are called “Walts” by genuine veterans, after the fantasist fictional character Walter Mitty. There are numerous Facebook groups dedicated to “Walt-hunting”.
Professor Edgar Jones, a military psychiatrist at King’s College London, said the idea of soldiers exaggerating the extent of their military service was a “well-established phenomenon” but that the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had revived the problem.
“Popular culture at the moment is focused on ‘heroes’ and ‘warriors’,” he said. “Service personnel have attracted a huge amount of public support. By putting on a uniform and pretending to be a veteran, it will attract sympathy.”
Brigadier (Ret’d) Robin Bacon, chief of staff at The Soldiers’ Charity, said it uses “rigorous” checks to ensure only bona fide veterans and their families receive assistance. He added that while new laws would be “very difficult to enforce”, he was aware of “many recent cases of fraud when people are passing themselves off as charity collectors. This can put people off giving to deserving causes.”
The Ministry of Defence said the Government currently has “no plans” to introduce new legislation. “It is not automatically against civilian law to wear a veterans’ badge or campaign medals which have not been earned, but it is already an offence to do so if it amounts to fraud or a similar offence such as obtaining services dishonestly,” it said.
“There are many instances where relatives openly wear medals earned by deceased relatives as a mark of respect.”
All that glitters... veteran frauds
In 2010, the 62-year-old was sentenced to 60 hours community service after being pictured at a Remembrance Day parade with an array of medals he could not possibly have won. He admitted he had invented his glittering career to persuade a woman to marry him. His only military experience had been with a Junior Leaders Regiment.
After boasting on Facebook that he was a decorated SAS soldier who had killed more than 100 people, he was exposed and forced to resign from the Army. McAuley claimed to have been the second SAS man on the balcony during the London Iranian embassy siege in 1980. In reality, he served in the Army Catering Corps and organised local poppy collections.
The 59-year-old ambulance driver was exposed after claiming to have twice won the Military Medal and to have engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with Argentinian soldiers at Goose Green during the Falklands War. In fact, he had only served in the regular Army for five years and then spent 20 years with the TA. He bought his medals in a shop.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies