Last week when I wrote about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to scrap the Stolen Valor Act, I didn’t mention the Terry Calandra case. That’s because even though Calandra bragged about his fictitious heroics in Vietnam, he wasn’t prosecuted under the 2006 law.
Calandra, who lives in Belvidere, N.J., pleaded guilty last fall to making false statements in relation to military honors.
So how is that different from the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a federal crime to lie about prized military honors?
Here’s what U.S. District Court documents in Calandra’s case say:
After he contacted then-U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter’s office for help in upgrading his bogus Silver Star medal to the Medal of Honor, the Army’s Military Awards Branch started checking his story and became suspicious of the documents he provided. The Army referred the matter to the FBI for possible violations under the Stolen Valor Act.
In October 2009 two FBI agents interviewed Calandra, who told them that during a battle on March 23, 1969, he grabbed a grenade that had been thrown into his company’s command post and shoved it into a pit. His body muffled the explosion, and he suffered extensive shrapnel wounds. He said he received the Silver Star for covering the grenade.
Three days later, in another interview with FBI agents, Calandra came clean. He said a clerk he had been drinking with gave him the medal and that after he got home in 1970, he created fake general orders in support of it. He had not been in the March 23 battle but had heard about it from his unit.
“Calandra told the agents that he fabricated this story because he liked how it felt to be a hero, that it boosted his ego, and was an addiction,” according to the court documents. “[He] liked how people treated him and talked to him when they found out what awards he had and he enjoyed telling his story.”
Over the years, people in the Lehigh Valley started telling him that his Silver Star should be upgraded to a Medal of Honor. He contacted Specter’s office about that in 2003.
That was his big mistake.
The feds ultimately charged him with one count of making false statements, saying he submitted fraudulent general orders and award certificates to Specter’s office, “within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Senate.”
In order words, he broke the law when he lied to a member of Congress.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year’s probation and a $500 fine. The maximum penalty he faced under that statute – Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 1001(a) — was five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Court documents don’t say why he wasn’t nailed under the Stolen Valor Act, which called for a lesser penalty of one year in prison and fines up to $100,000.
What made Calandra think he could get away with it?
Here’s what he told the FBI, according to the court documents:
“After being wounded in combat and coming home alive, Calandra thought that he could beat anything and that he had nothing to worry about. … [He] never worried about whether or not the general orders he fabricated were ever questioned. Calandra thought that the worst the Army would do would be to take away his awards and that he had faced a much worse enemy [in Vietnam] and lived.”
He was living the advice of many war veterans: Don’t sweat the small stuff. But in puffing himself up and dishonoring the real heroes — those who earned their medals for valor — he went too far. How sad that Calandra, who served the country in an unpopular war and legitimately received several Purple Hearts, felt that he needed further affirmation and stooped so low to get it.