The word "valor" conjures up images of bravery in the face of incredible danger — a description well-suited for service members. But did you know that valor can be stolen?

The Stolen Valor Act is meant to help protect service members and their reputations and identities. It's also a defense against any false claim of military decoration, stopping people from lying about awards, medals or other recognitions. However, like most legislation, the Stolen Valor Act is an ongoing story — one that's about to get more complicated.

Here's everything you need to know about stolen valor and how to protect yourself.

What Is Stolen Valor?

Stolen valor is essentially a lie. It involves falsely claiming military service, rank, recognition or even someone else's identity. While it's not technically illegal to just "make things up" — for example, to impress friends at a party — stolen valor is more complicated than that, which is why it is considered a crime. (So is military impersonation, a similar offense committed willfully, wrongfully and with or without intent to defraud.)

What makes stolen valor so complex? One example is nuance. In some cases, a service member may have received the wrong authorization and could be unknowingly wearing a medal or other decorations inappropriately. That's right: Even active service members can commit an act of stolen valor. These acts are covered under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), while veterans and civilians answer to civilian federal law.

The Stolen Valor Act is a series of attempts to clarify these issues, balancing military service protections with free speech rules. Here's a look at the legislative history:

The Stolen Valor Act of 2005

This legislation made it a misdemeanor to lie about earning any kind of military medal or honor. These lies included wearing, manufacturing and selling any medal without legal authorization. The reasoning was clear: "Fraudulent claims surrounding the receipt of [military honors] damage the reputation and meaning of such decorations and medals." Penalties included fines and imprisonment.

However, the legislation didn't last long. In the United States vs. Alvarez, one of multiple stolen valor cases, state official Xavier Alvarez's legal team argued that these rules infringed upon the First Amendment protection of free speech. In 2012, the Supreme Court declared the legislation unconstitutional.

The 2013 Amendment

In 2013, stolen valor rules came back, this time with a new caveat: The lies in question must result in some kind of tangible benefit before they can be considered legally problematic. This helps focus legislative language on fraudulent activity that isn't protected under the First Amendment.

The new Stolen Valor Act identifies protections for military awards including:

  • Congressional Medal of Honor.
  • Distinguished service cross.
  • Navy cross.
  • Air Force cross.
  • Silver star.
  • Purple Heart.
  • Combat Action Badge.
  • Combat Action Ribbon.

Penalties include fines, imprisonment for up to one year or both.

"Our nation can never fully express our gratitude for all that our men and women in uniform have experienced on our behalf," said Senator Dean Heller, one of the creators of the amendment, in 2013. "Their acts of valor helped ensure the safety and security of our nation, and the honor of their awards should never be compromised.

A New House Provision

In mid-2023, the House Appropriations Committee released its Fiscal Year 2024 bill, which included a potentially problematic provision for stolen valor laws. This would make it far more difficult to obtain military service records.

The idea is mostly an attempt to defend service member privacy, which is more important than ever in today's world. However, there's a perhaps unintended consequence: It would be incredibly complicated to disprove any fraudulent claim of military service. You could technically get the information if you really needed it, but you'd have to get permission from the service member or their family — and if that didn't work, you'd have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which could take months or years to come through.

It's crucial to protect personal information, sure. But opponents of the provision point out that it's equally important to be able to disprove lies that could hurt service members or their families.

How To Spot Stolen Valor

Although ongoing legislation shifts the playing field for the Stolen Valor Act, you can still help spot trouble. Here are a few red flags that someone could be lying about a military honor:

Incomplete Understanding of Military Duties

Military duties are rigorous and highly regulated, as any service member should know. You'd probably be able to list the specifics of your responsibilities even decades after active service. That's why it's often suspicious when someone has an incomplete or incorrect understanding of military duties — whether the tasks they supposedly completed or the functions of the military overall.

If you suspect someone could be committing an act of stolen valor, ask yourself this: Does it sound like they learned everything they know by watching war movies? This kind of surface-level or even flat-out wrong understanding of the military is often a giveaway that you're not hearing the truth.

Of course, if someone is truly dedicated to such lies, they may have done in-depth research. That means this red flag isn't always applicable, and you may need to look elsewhere for signs of deception.

Lack of Details

These days, it's easy to look up details about particular deployments or military operations — but someone who's falsifying their experiences won't have the specifics. They might be purposefully vague, avoiding in-depth discussions and changing the subject, or they might make things up to fill in the gaps. While a civilian may not notice inconsistencies in such a story, service members and their families will likely be the first to suspect that something isn't right.

This is particularly true if the person mentions a particular deployment location and date. Do other service members' recollections line up? There's always a chance that someone has simply forgotten a detail or had a different perspective and experience — but in general, everyone's stories should be similar.

Suspicious Language

There are a few ways to break down someone's language if you suspect stolen valor.

First, consider whether they "talk like a service member." Do they use the right terminology in the right places? Do they treat certain topics, responsibilities and fellow service members with respect? Do they speak about their experiences with familiarity? Everyone's experiences are different, so it can be difficult to know for sure — but trust your gut on this one.

It can also be helpful to remember the context of stolen valor as a legal term. If you were to hypothetically charge someone with this crime, they would have to be getting some kind of tangible benefit from their fraudulent claim. That means they might weave certain kinds of language into their speech or writing. Are they trying to get something from you or others? Do they sound like they're persuading you logically, emotionally or ethically? Can you link anything they're saying or doing to a money-making opportunity?

Protecting Your Valor

Service members and their families shouldn't have to fight for the valor they rightfully earned, but sometimes, it's necessary. That's why you should keep an eye on stolen valor laws and watch out for suspicious activity in on- or offline communities where you can't verify someone's military background. Most importantly, look for any kind of identity theft that could impact your reputation, finances or quality of life.