Thursday, January 7, 2010

Va. veteran guilty of false claims

Va. veteran guilty of false claims

A veterans group alerted authorities to a Norfolk man's false claims about his military honors.

By Mike Gangloff | The Roanoke Times

Even as he pleaded guilty to inflating his military record, Thomas James Barnhart insisted he'd received a Purple Heart.

"I was given a Purple Heart with no paperwork in Vietnam, so it was as if I had made up the award myself," Barnhart, 58, said Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Roanoke.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jake Jacobsen said Barnhart, who lives in the Norfolk area, didn't stop with one Purple Heart. In paperwork filed when he transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard, then in applications for disability benefits, Barnhart claimed an increasing array of honors. Ultimately he said he'd been a Navy SEAL, earned five Purple Hearts -- each supposedly marking a combat wound -- Bronze and Silver stars for valor, and more.

Barnhart's case echoed that of Randall Moneymaker, who in March 2008 was convicted of federal fraud and theft charges linked to false claims of combat missions and wounds that gained him a job as an Army recruiter and veterans disability benefits.

Jacobsen, who had prosecuted Moneymaker, said Barnhart also improperly sought benefits. In 1991 and 2005, Barnhart told Veterans Affairs interviewers tales of combat missions and a pilot dying in his arms. He said he'd been nominated for the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor.

All of that was bogus, Jacobsen said.

The prosecutor agreed that Barnhart was in the Navy from 1969 to 1979 and the Coast Guard until 1990.

But investigation showed only that Barnhart earned a medal for offshore duty during the Vietnam War. There was no record of combat or combat awards.

Barnhart pleaded guilty to violating federal Stolen Valor legislation by falsely claiming to have been awarded medals. He also pleaded guilty to a felony embezzlement charge tied to $13,923 in disability payments for supposed post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a short statement, Barnhart said he'd given the wrong reasons for why he suffered from PTSD, but seemed to defend the diagnosis itself.

Judge James Turk accepted Barnhart's guilty pleas and noted that his plea agreement said he would repay the disability payments along with whatever fines and prison term might be imposed. He scheduled sentencing for April 8.

After the hearing, Jacobsen, who served with the U.S. Army Reserve in Iraq, said military veterans, like fishermen, are prone to exaggeration. But falsifying service records for financial gain is "just galling," Jacobsen said.

So is claiming false honors during wartime, he added.

"You've got the real sailors, soldiers and airmen out there putting their lives on the line every day," Jacobsen said.

He said authorities were alerted to Barnhart's false claims by the veterans group AMVETS. Mary and Chuck Schantag, who run the group's Web site, could not be contacted Wednesday.

Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran from Colorado who was a leading advocate for the 2005 Stolen Valor legislation, said Barnhart's case shows the need for Congress to push the military to keep better records of medals such as Purple Hearts.

"There are literally tens of thousands of people who were given awards that never made it to paperwork," Sterner said.

The sad part of this entire affair is the man had an honorable military career, he then chose to dishonor it by making false claims of medals awarded that never were, of performing duties he never performed. The Navy has a problem with sailors claiming to be the ultimate Navy combat person a "Seal" the Army has the problem with soldiers claiming to be "rangers" or "special forces/green berets" soldiers that spent 20 years or more of honorable service make up "whoppers" about "rambo style adventures" and spicing up their career, but then they turn it criminal by putting these lies to paper and asking for veterans compensation for PTSD using these made up adventures, claiming lost paperwork, fallen friends (found from known names of fallen soldiers on stories posted on the internet or found in magazines) hoping or knowing that the VA will not dig deep enough into the sham story and approve compensation payments.

This is fraud and it should aand is being prosecuted as such. I find it distasteful to even have to address these issues, the words "Duty, Honor and Country" are not just words most military personnel live their lives by these words, so to find scam artists abusing our lifestyle by these type of actions, it burns to the core.

Many veterans claim that these veterans are stealing from other veterans and the money they gain by making these flase claims is depriving a veterans from getting their benefits, which is also a complete lie. I don't know which lie is worse, if a veteran makes a claim to the veterans Administration and the claim is deemed to be service connected and a percentage is set of how disabled the veteran is and the award is made. No veteran is deprived of benefits because of these "frauds" much like the Social Security Disability if an award is made the checks are mailed, if the VA funds run low then the VA secretary will go to Congress and say I need this much money to pay compensation forthie rest of this year and this is how much we are going to need next year to pay compensation benefits, the benefits have nothing to do with the VA health care side of the VA, no programs have money taken away from them to pay comp claims, veterans are not stealing from other veterans, they ARE committing fraud against all US taxpayers.

Bottom line though as galling as these stories are frauds in the VA system is still the smallest of all government programs that offer compensation, there is less than 2% fraud in the VA system overall, medicare, food stamps, unemployment programs etc all have higher fraud rates than does the VA system. Fraud is dispicable regardless of whom does it, but there is just something a little more disgusting about military veterans doing it, especially retirees who spent a career defending this nation, that they dishonor it by these wild claims of heroics. The do great damage to those who do live by "Duty, Honor and Country".

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