Battleships at war
Volume 54, Number 3, March 2016
Medals will be worn — the law says it’s OK A DECADE ago the medal hobby in America was somewhat concerned about the Stolen Valor Act which, on the surface, seemed to prevent any collector holding medals which they didn’t legitimately earn as part of their service. Those fears were soon proved unfounded and the act itself was used only to prosecute those who possessed (and wore) medals with intent to defraud. That in itself now seems to be in disarray after an appeals court in San Francisco overturned the conviction of a veteran who wore medals he hadn’t been awarded whilst appearing in court to give evidence in a case in 2005. Elven Swisher had worn a Purple Heart in the witness box but, whilst he was a veteran of the US Marine Corps, he had never seen action and certainly hadn’t been wounded in the line of duty and so was convicted under the Stolen Valor Act. Now the appeals court has decreed that wearing medals in the way Swisher did is actually a form of free speech and thus is protected under the First Amendment to the US Constitution! This inevitably leaves the Stolen Valor Act in tatters as it seems anybody in the USA can now express their right to free speech by wearing whatever they want! The same is true in the UK—under section 197 of the Army Act of 1955 it was an offence to wear any medal, decoration or emblem to which you were not entitled if you were falsely representing yourself as being entitled to wear them (in other words you could wear a medal as a “fashion statement” or as a re-enactor but you couldn’t claim you’d won it). That all changed with the Armed Forces Act of 2006 and falsely claiming medals is no longer considered an offence (however, the Uniforms Act of 1894 may mean that you could still be prosecuted by wearing a beret, badge, etc., to which you were not entitled—all very complicated and don’t take my word for it I’m not a lawyer!). Now any right thinking collector would still frown upon such “Walts” (named for the fictional fantasist Walter Mitty) as Elven Swisher and Roger Day (the man who turned up at a Remembrance Day parade with SAS beret and an impossible chest full of gallantry medals—I seem to recall a DSO and bar, maybe two, an MC, an MM and a row of campaign medals that would have made him around 80!). But whether we like it or not their right to pretend to be something they are not is now enshrined in law. On both sides of the pond it’s OK now to put on however many medals you like and parade around pretending to be General This or Admiral That as if the whole thing is just one giant game of dressing up. I imagine, of course, that this “game” is only protected in law if it remains just that and if Mr Day, Mr Swisher, et al want to play soldiers then they can, but if they take it any further and actually defraud anyone or make financial gains because of their false status then I’m pretty sure that the law has other ways of punishing them. Actually, if I’m honest, I feel a little sorry for the “Walts”—they obviously have some serious inadequacies somewhere along the line and whilst I won’t go as far as diagnosing mental instability (I’m not a doctor either) I can’t really believe they are playing with a full deck. Anyone who feels the need to claim to be something they quite plainly are not (and have you noticed they are always “heroes” no one ever pretends to be in the Pay Corps) probably needs more help than condemnation. Thankfully, as we know, most people interested in medals are more concerned with preserving them, and the story of those to whom they were awarded rather than donning them to gain false praise from strangers and for every Elven Swisher there are a thousand more who know the real meaning of orders and decorations. That said, I’m sure there are a few of you out there whose loved ones have, from time to time shaken their heads with pity and expressed their concern that you may need a little help of your own as it’s not “quite right” spending so much time with (and money) on these pieces of metal and silk. It’s true, not everyone understands us but, thankfully, we are quite some way behind the “Walts” in the queue for the straitjackets. And besides, the coin collectors are ahead of us anyway!
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