Phony Heroes

Once a month or so, a small group of old warriors gather for lunch at Dunston's Steakhouse on Harry Hines Boulevard. They don't look extraordinary, and they won't talk about their histories unless you ask them. These men belong to the North Texas chapter of the Legion of Valor. All distinguished themselves during wartime by exhibiting extraordinary heroism in combat and received one of four medals: the Medal of Honor, the Army's Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Force Cross or the Navy Cross.

Since most such awards are granted posthumously, they further distinguished themselves by getting home alive.

It's an elite club. Of 450,000 veterans in North Texas, only 11 qualify to be members of the Legion of Valor. With the passing of the World War II generation, legion membership has dwindled, from 18 chapters nationwide down to four.

Non-veterans may consider medals and decorations "fruit salad," little more than colorful ribbons and bits of metal. But those who have served in combat understand the harrowing events that turn soldiers into heroes. Retired Major Dick Agnew, for instance, received the DSC for bravery during a battle at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea in July 1953. His buddy, Corporal Gilbert Collier, who received the Medal of Honor, died trying to save Agnew and others.

That's why Agnew started breathing fire when a friend told him about a car at DFW International Airport sporting a Legion of Valor Texas license plate issued by the Texas Department of Transportation.

On Agnew's car is the first Texas Legion of Valor plate, issued to him in 1993. A set of two plates costs $3 and includes free car registration for life. (Medal of Honor recipients pay nothing.) Some agencies give the bearers perks, such as free airport parking and road tolls. On the member's death, the plates go to the spouse and then are retired.

Agnew knows all the living Legion of Valor members, and none drove a car matching the one at the airport.

He found the owner: a baggage handler-inspector with the Transportation Security Administration at DFW Airport, who had taped a photo of the Navy Cross inside one window. Through military records, Agnew verified that the TSA employee, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, didn't belong to the Legion of Valor nor had he received the Navy Cross.

Falsely wearing or claiming military awards and decorations violates the federal Stolen Valor Act of 2005; offenders can receive up to one year in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Agnew decided to go after the faker for "stealing the valor, honor and respect" of those who performed courageously in combat.

"Read what these guys did," says Agnew. "He doesn't deserve it. The man is a federal criminal."

A feisty and fit 77-year-old, Agnew has raised more than $8.6 million for "Fisher Houses," where families of hospitalized veterans can stay when their loved ones are in a Veterans Affairs hospital. His method of fund-raising is simple: He doesn't take no for an answer.

Like a dog on a dinosaur bone, for more than a year, Agnew tried to get law enforcement agencies to investigate the airport worker. He nagged FBI Special Agent Garrett Gumbinner, based at DFW Airport, who infuriated Agnew by saying the bureau couldn't waste its time prosecuting such "trivial" matters.

"He told me to stay away from it," Agnew says. His letters to Gumbinner were returned unopened.

Gumbinner declined to comment. FBI spokesman Mark White says that "hypothetically" the agency would look into violations of the Stolen Valor Act, "depending on the circumstances." Those cases likely would be "few and far between."

In other jurisdictions, the FBI has investigated military phonies and, since 2005, violations of the Stolen Valor Act. FBI special agent Tom Cottone has pursued military impostors since 1992.

"It's important to maintain the integrity of medals, especially the valor decorations," says Cottone, now in counterterrorism. "It's a federal offense. It's against the law. I equate it to counterfeit money. No one would respect the real thing [if we didn't prosecute counterfeiting]. A medal or decoration is awarded for a specific act of courage and bravery. It's not just a piece of jewelry."

Agnew tried the airport police department.

"There's not much a local agency can do" because the plates weren't altered or fraudulent, says Lieutenant Zack Griffin, with the DFW Department of Public Safety. "The state issued him the license plate, so it's between him and the state."

Agnew had no more luck with the Transportation Security Administration, which had hired the fake plate holder after a background check. Contacted by the Dallas Observer, retired Rear Admiral Jim Lair, then-acting federal security director for the TSA at the airport, declined to comment about the man, who still works for the TSA as a security guard.

Andrea McCauley, TSA spokeswoman, confirmed that the case has been referred to the FBI. The FBI's refusal to do anything incensed Agnew.

"They are violating a federal order," Agnew says. "They've tried to cover it up. They are hiding this guy."

After butting heads with law enforcement authorities for months, Agnew and Navy Cross recipient Don Mason, with the San Antonio-based Legion of Valor chapter, went to the Texas Department of Transportation. The vehicle registrations and titles department issues more than 20 different military plates, including POW, Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

In February, Agnew and Mason met with seven TxDOT officials. Agency officials could not believe any fakers had slipped through their application process.

The reality: It was a breeze.

"It is really, really easy for people to forge paperwork," admits Kim Sue Lia Perkes, spokesman for TxDOT. "We're in this kind of situation where the world has changed, and you can't work by the honor system anymore."

The agency decided to re-examine the documentation for all 67 Legion of Valor plate-holders. They sent letters to 11 asking for them to resubmit the records, including their military discharge form, called a DD 214, and award certificate proving their eligibility. Most did not respond.

"We, too, want to cancel and alert the Texas Department of Public Safety [and FBI] about any impostors we might find," Perkes says. The agency now is in the process of canceling eight Legion of Valor plates; two phonies have surrendered their plates.

Mason says an elderly San Antonio man turned in his plates and wrote a letter of apology for lying. "He said it just 'snowballed,'" Mason says.

A loophole in state legislation creating the Legion of Valor plates does not require membership in the group. Mason hopes the Legislature will fix that in January. Those applications are well-scrutinized.

TxDOT plans to change the process for obtaining the special plates to require initial approval in Austin instead of county offices.

"The counties are not really qualified to check the paperwork," Perkes says. "It's even hard for us to check the paperwork."

For most other military plates, Mason says, it's impossible for TXDOT to verify applicants' qualifications.

"You can get a DD 214 off the Internet," Mason says. That and a typewriter can fake a Purple Heart. Though it is illegal to purchase military medals one is not entitled to, they are available on the Internet.

That makes it certain that other phonies have claimed specialty plates. As of February 2008, with about 20 million registered vehicles, the most requested Texas military plate was for Disabled Veterans, at 57,763.

Other plates include: nine Medals of Honor, 279 Flying Cross Medals, 1,712 for POWs and 16,650 Purple Hearts. Other categories include Pearl Harbor Survivor, Vietnam Veteran, World War II Veteran, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. (POW plates will be the next scrutinized.)

"This problem is not unique to Texas," Perkes says. "When it comes to Mr. Agnew and Mr. Mason, we are lucky to have them help us. We would welcome a military database that everyone is signed off on. We have to strike this balance. We can't make it so hard that really deserving people who displayed incredible bravery have to jump through so many hoops. On the other hand, we have to be diligent to make sure this is a deserving recipient."