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Navy SEAL Don Shipley on AOL News.

Man Who Posed as Hero Marine Is Sentenced

Richard C. Paddock San Francisco Correspondent

AOL News SAN FRANCISCO (March 15) -- A Palm Springs bank employee who posed as a highly decorated Marine lieutenant colonel at his high school reunion was sentenced today to a year of probation and ordered to undergo mental health counseling.

During a court hearing in Riverside, Steven Douglas Burton also was ordered to pay a fine of $250 by U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips for wearing a medal he did not earn.

Burton, 39, who wore a full-dress uniform with a prestigious Navy Cross, a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star to his school reunion in Martinez, was unmasked by a former classmate who was a Navy commander and became suspicious when she saw his stunning array of medals.

U.S. Attorney’s Office Steven Douglas Burton’s Web site contained photos of him wearing the Marine Corps uniform proudly. He had rows of medals, including a prestigious Navy Cross, a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
ALSO SEE: Military Impostors Are Neither Few Nor Proud

Burton never served in the military but bought uniforms and at least 15 medals online and at military stores. He pleaded guilty in December to one misdemeanor count for the unauthorized wearing of a military medal.

He had been facing up to a year in prison and a fine of $100,000 under the federal Stolen Valor Act.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Akrotirianakis, who prosecuted the case, said the government did not seek jail time because there was no evidence that Burton enriched himself by posing as a military hero.

However, citizen activists who track false claims of military heroism expressed disappointment that Burton did not receive a tougher sentence for engaging in his deception, and as a deterrent to others.

"Disgusting," Mary Schantag of the POW Network told AOL News after learning of the sentence. "Not near enough punishment. That just gives all the rest reason to continue."

Schantag said there are thousands of phony military heroes around the country who have never been prosecuted. Often, she said, their claims of valor are part of a larger fraud that includes stealing money and preying on vulnerable women.

The POW Network Website lists more than 3,700 "phonies and wannabes" who falsely claim to be heroes, including supposed medal recipients, combat veterans and former prisoners of war.

Don Shipley, a former Navy SEAL who runs the Extreme SEAL Experience training program for civilians in Virginia, became so upset by the growing number of fake heroes that he posted a video on YouTube showing photos of dozens of alleged phonies, including Burton.

Doug Sterner, an independent watchdog who operates the Home of Heroes Web site, advocates tougher laws and the creation of an official registry of medal winners so the public can verify claims of heroism.

He also expressed disappointment over Burton’s sentence, which he called "a slap on the wrist."

"The proliferation of this kind of identify theft and fraud will continue until the public begins to fully understand the depth to which this kind of fraud goes, and until judges begin handing out sentences that make this crime no longer profitable," he told AOL News.

In an opinion article for USA Today last week, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley questioned whether military imposters should be treated as criminals. He suggested that while their conduct was offensive, they might be engaging in constitutionally protected free speech.

Sterner, however, strongly disagrees. He argues that most of the phony heroes are engaged in some sort of fraud and use their false claims of bravery as part of a charade to extract money from victims.

"There is almost always fraud associated with these cases, but all too often it is not discovered until much later," Sterner said.

In Burton’s case, he admitted in his plea agreement that he wore his unearned medals at least three times in public, including at a Halloween party.

During a visit to Coronado Island near San Diego, he posed as a master gunnery sergeant and later posted a photo of himself in uniform. He also blogged about imagined wartime experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Claiming that he served four tours in Iraq, he wrote that he was at the Battle of Fallujah and praised doctors who "patched us up."

In his plea agreement, he said he selected the Marine Corps because he liked its uniforms more than those in the other services. He admitted that he wore the uniform of a lieutenant colonel to his 20th reunion at Alhambra High School in October 2008 to impress his former classmates.

His downfall came when Navy Cmdr. Colleen Salonga saw his uniform and noticed the Navy Cross, which is one of the nation’s highest honors and is rarely awarded. She recalled Burton from high school as the kind of boy who was unlikely to join the Marines, much less become a highly decorated hero. She asked Burton if they could pose together for a photo and afterward sent the picture to the FBI.

"At the time, defendant knew that his claims of military service were false," the plea agreement says, "and that his wearing of military decorations for valor was a violation of federal law." Filed under: Nation, Crime

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