HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday signed the Stolen Valor Act into law, making it a crime for a person who hasn’t served in the military to impersonate a service member or claim to be a veteran.

John Getz, state adjutant of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of Pennsylvania, said the legislation’s title is apt and the legislation is warranted to punish impersonators who try to benefit from pretending to be a veteran.

“I think they are criminals because they are stealing the valor of people who have done these deeds,” he said.

Previously, lying about military service was not illegal in Pennsylvania.

The legislation makes it a third-degree misdemeanor for a person to falsely claim to be a veteran in order to commit fraud, get a job or get elected to public office. It carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. The penalty is increased to up to two years in jail and $5,000 fine if the person falsely claims to have received medals, including the Congressional Medal of Honor, a Silver Star or Purple Heart.

Under the law, each time a person claims to be a veteran or service member would be a separate offense.

Wolf said the state will never be able to fully repay the debt owed to veterans for their service. But taking steps to make sure that those who get the benefits set aside for veterans is an important move.

“We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to veterans,” he said. Trying to take advantage of the veteran benefits without having earned them, "should be offensive to everyone,” Wolf said.

The issue has particular resonance in Pennsylvania because so many state residents have served the country in the military, Wolf said.

With one in 12 residents being veterans, Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest veteran population in the country, Wolf said.

The law comes five years after the state moved to allow veterans to get a special designation on their driver’s licenses so they can demonstrate their veteran's status to get benefits in stores and restaurants, said Kit Watson, adjutant general of the American Legion in Pennsylvania.

People serve in the military for a lot of reasons, but most serve their country out of a sense of duty. The decision has consequences because military service is demanding, doesn’t pay particularly well and involves separation from family and friends, he said.

“When they get out, they are entitled to benefits,” he said.

Watson said that there will likely always be charlatans, but he expects the legislation will deter some people who might be tempted to seek benefits or pretend they deserve assistance they didn’t earn.

No one interviewed could quantify how often impersonators have been caught faking military careers, but Wolf said it’s an issue where one case is too many.

State Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County, who is the Democratic chairman of the House veterans affairs and emergency preparedness committee, said that the most egregious cases tend to involve people faking military service in order to get donations from other members of the community.

“It’s horrible,” he said.

The state law expands upon the 2013 federal Stolen Valor Act, said state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny County, who authored the Pennsylvania Stolen Valor Law. The federal law focuses on those who display or wear military decorations fraudulently, but it doesn’t cover lying about military service for economic gain, he said.

CONTACT John Finnerty at jfinnerty@cnhi.com; follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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