Steve Burton, a man in someone else's uniform (So why is this a federal offense?)
Well, I've always wondered just what the Uniform Code of Military Justice is. But now I'm beginning to piece things together and figure out that the operative words may be "uniform" and "military." Or so it seems, if you're following the case of Steve Burton, who went to his 20th high school reunion sporting a Marine uniform, bedazzled by a number of medals, including the Navy Cross. (Source: CNN.)
Trouble is, Burton is not now and never has been a Marine, let alone a decorated Marine, and he's now charged with:
..."unauthorized wearing of military medals or decorations." The federal misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of a year in federal prison upon conviction.
Semper fee, fie, fo, fum. Someone smells the blood of a Palm Springs bank officer, not a mega-decorated jar-head.
That someone was Navy Commander Colleen Salonga.
She was also at the reunion - apparently in mufti - when she spied Burton's chest o' medals and, knowing the rarity with which the Navy Cross is awarded, grew suspicious.
Apparently, Salonga didn't do what a kinder, gentler classmate might have done - ask a probing question or two, and then whisper in Burton's ear that if those really weren't his medals, he needed to take them off. Or write it off as a bad joke Halloween costume - the reunion was held on October 31st of last year. No, Salonga asked the unwitting Burton to pose with her for a picture. Which she put down her swagger stick long enough to send to the FBI.
Despite the perpetual threat of terrorism and the large number of what I might loosely call crime-crimes, the FBI had time to investigate. (Including a search of Burton's home.) They discovered that Burton had never served, let alone won any medals, and that he'd been blogging about his exploits in Afghanistan and Iraq - questionable taste and judgement surely, but not a federal offense as far as I'm aware.
He also had a picture of himself posted online, again in uniform, this time having humbly demoted himself from high school reunion lieutenant colonel to lowly gunnery sergeant. The medals were fully intact. (By the way, "even if a medal is a replica, wearing it still violates federal law." Who knew?)
Burton hasn't spoken, so it's difficult to say what his intentions were here, but if I were the betting type, I'd place a couple of bets.
First, Burton lives with his partner of eighteen years. If we were to put two and two together, one might be able to imagine that at some point or other during his time served at Alhambra High School, Burton was ridiculed or bullied. Nothing terrible, mind you. Just the occasional trip in the halls, the odd book toss, the hip chuck into the lockers, the stray epithet hurled his way.
What better way to show up the jocks who scorned him as a 98 pound weakling than to show up at the 20th reunion as a decorated Marine?
Second, like a lot of folks - especially those who haven't led particularly glamorous or exciting lives - Burton may have fantasized and romanticized about being a hero. One bit of wishful thinking led to another, and there you are online writing about your combat exploits. (Note: the work-based exploits I occasionally write about on Pink Slip are true, all true, however filtered through the years and through my own desire to make myself look good...)
If it's the first - revenge of the nerd - this story is kind of funny.
If it's the second - well, this is sad and more than a little pathetic. Definitely conduct unbecoming a bank officer.
When I was a kid, we had an expression we used when someone over-reacted to something: "You don't have to make a federal case out of it."
Maybe my moral compass is way off here, but is Burton's offense something we need to make a federal case out of?
Sure, you can make the case that Burton vaguely took away from real heroes by posing as one. But what's the real harm? He wasn't swanning around the Pentagon giving advice. He wasn't cadging health care from a VA Hospital. He wasn't giving interviews crowing about his heroism. He wasn't endangering the lives of others in battle. He wasn't trying to get a free ride - front row tickets, upgrades to first.
He was pretending he was something he wasn't so that people would think he was brave, a hero, someone to look up to.
Embarrassing, shabby, pathetic? Yes. (Or maybe just a joke of dubious taste, given that there's a war on. Or, rather, two wars on.)
Deserving of a poke in the nose from a real winner of the Navy Cross? Probably.
Worthy of a year in the slammer? Absolutely not.
Burton's trial date is set for early January.
I'm not a big one to complain about waste of taxpayers' money. But isn't this a colossal waste of taxpayers money?
I'm sure that the blogosphere's chicken hawk brigade will be squawking for Burton to do time for this affront to their world, but I'm hoping the government prosecutor comes to his senses and drops the trial, with a warning to Burton that he better not show up at his 25th reunion wearing any "fruit salad".
As for Colleen Salonga...
Come on, Colleen. Sure, it may have been a little awkward to broach the topic with Steve Burton. But, if you had your suspicions, wouldn't voicing them to Steve have been a bit more upright than cagily getting him to pose for a picture that you could send on to the FBI? Couldn't you have used your network to check out the Navy Cross story on your own - surely there's a list somewhere, surely this information isn't secret. And surely you could have contacted Burton once you found that his name was AWOL from any Navy Cross list, and told him off and warned him that he'd better cease and desist.
The best spin I can put on this is that maybe you wanted to 'make sure' before you made an accusation, and the FBI, lamely, decided to run with it.
But isn't this a consequence that you should have been able to foresee?
(If there's some end-of-days situation and they end up drafting old geezers, and I find myself serving under her, I'm heading to sick-bay.)
As for the FBI. Once they got their wind up on Burton, how about a sternly worded letter to him? Or a knock on the door and a 'you may not be aware' conversation with the local G-man.
Sure, wearing medals you didn't win is pathetic and somewhat distasteful, but it's not such an obvious crime, is it? I mean, it's not up there in terms of 'but of course', heinous offenses like grand theft auto, beating someone's brains out with a tire iron, or stealing military secrets and selling them to Al Qaeda.
Yes, it's "only" a misdemeanor, but there seems to be an awful lot of over-reacting for something that's really fairly peccadillo-ish in the grand scheme of things. (A possible year in jail? Yikes!)
As for poor Steve Burton, he's sure finding out that make-believe war is hell, too.