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Thursday, March 23, 2006 10:02 pm

Nailing the cheats

Pending legislation would criminalize faking a military honor

In last summer’s frothy comedy Wedding Crashers, the lead characters, played by Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, used a variety of phony personas to impress women. Their favorite gimmick — guaranteed to garner “attention, admiration, and plenty of booze” — was flaunting a fake Purple Heart, the military decoration awarded to soldiers wounded in battle. But here in Illinois, a bill pending before the General Assembly would make this sort of pretend heroism a crime punishable by a fine of as much as $200. “We wanted to tighten up the Illinois criminal code and make it the crime of false personation if somebody pawns themselves off to be a recipient of some of our armed forces’ greatest honors,” says state Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Westmont. “Sadly, we have seen political candidates and people who apply for jobs flat-out lie when it comes to . . . military honors. Not only is that wrong, it also takes away from the status of the medals for those who earned them.” Sponsored by a pair of Cook County legislators, House Bill 4121 was originally drafted in response to a particular Chicagoland political candidate. “We had an individual in our community actually parading around wearing a purple medal claiming to have received it,” says state Rep. Daniel Burke, D-Chicago, sponsor of the bill. “But what could you do? There was no law against it. I thought it was something we should attend to as a society, letting individuals masquerade as having received that particular medal.” In February, the bill passed the House unanimously. In the Senate, an amendment was added to include other military decorations. Dillard, co-sponsor of the bill, says that the amendment was drafted after consultation with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. “We asked them what medals are the most coveted, and this is the list they came back with,” he says. The amendment includes the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross, the Silver Star, and the Bronze Star. “When it comes to the world of heroic fantasy, I believe that the medals we have protected in this new Illinois statute are the epitome of service to one’s country,” Dillard says. “We owe it to our veterans to do this.” If such legislation had been enacted earlier, it might have snared Springfield political powerbroker Joe Wilkins. Wilkins, a retired college professor who had a $40,000-per-year consulting contract with the secretary of state and who had been tapped by three mayors to play a major role in city government, derived much of his prestige from claims of military heroics during his service in Vietnam. Wilkins claimed to have two Purple Hearts, as well as the nation’s third-highest decoration, the Silver Star. Last year, Illinois Times reported that the government has no record of Wilkins’ purported Purple Hearts or Silver Star and that records related to the medals, submitted to the state by Wilkins, included forged signatures, according to the men whose names appeared on the documents. Shortly after the report was published, the secretary of state revoked Wilkins’ special license plates, which display the military decorations [see “Duty calls,” April 7, 2005]. At the time, Wilkins promised the State Journal-Register that he would search for documents proving that his medals were genuine. Dillard wasn’t familiar with Wilkins but says that such tales show why this legislation is necessary. “You can never tell psychologically why somebody would fudge with respect to these medals,” he says. “We owe it to those who actually earned these honors to make sure they are kept pristine. These medals are the way we say thank you as a nation to the people who protect us day in and day out.” He expects the legislation to pass handily before session’s end. “It will blow out of the Senate,” Dillard says.

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