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Honoring our veterans means war stories sometimes need a closer look

A man seeking help recent veterans fair said his dog was the
recipient Purple Heart but thinformatidid not check out. |

A man seeking help at a recent veterans fair said his dog was the recipient of a Purple Heart, but that information did not check out. | Denise Crosby ~ Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 1, 2013 6:34AM

It was billed as a Womens Veterans’ Fair, although all vets needing assistance were welcome. But the real stars of this event at Waubonsee Community College’s downtown Aurora campus I’d written about last week were the guests on leashes.

Trainers from Bully Barracks were at the fair with a couple of adorable pit bulls that work with vets struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. There was, however, another canine not with this group that was getting even more attention: a black and brown German shepherd mix sporting a camouflage vest that featured his very own Purple Heart.

According to his owner, this military canine was riding in a Humvee when an IED exploded and seriously injured the animal. The owner came to the fair because he was having trouble getting his four-legged war hero through the red tape for rabies shots so he could return to Hawaii from his parent’s home in Elgin.

It seemed like a great story. And I spent some time talking to the dog’s owner, even as U.S. Rep. Bill Foster’s aide took his information in the chance they could help him. Later, however, I learned from the Kane County Veterans Assistance Commission that this dog tale raised some red flags.

Turns out Elgin Courier-News reporter Mike Danahey had done some checking when he heard the story, and learned through the Pets for Patriots organization that the canine was indeed a service dog for the vet suffering from PTSD, but the animal had never been in the military, much less received a Purple Heart.

Who knows why this veteran felt the need to turn his four-legged friend into a war hero. That’s not for me to answer, or judge, which is why I’m not using his name. But I did find the embellishment interesting, especially in light of the “major correction” the Chicago Tribune ran on Sunday about an earlier front page story that focused on a veteran blinded by combat who had to retire his aging seeing-eye dog. Come to find out, according to the Trib’s mea culpa, the dog’s owner lost his eyesight to diabetes and had never served in the military.

Checking out war stories is a necessity because, unfortunately, there’s a lot of fabricating going on. You may recall the headlines back in 1995 when Kane County Judge Michael O’Brien was forced to resign after it was revealed he’d never been a Medal of Honor recipient like he’d been touting for 15 years.

Only a few weeks ago, Waukegan’s newly-appointed Police Chief Robert Kerkorian left his duties in disgrace after it came to light he’d never been a Navy Seal.

Over the years there have been plenty of stories about people, including high-profile politicians, who have been accused of lying about, embellishing or “misidentifying” their military records. The issue received additional attention a year ago when the U.S. Supreme Court, citing the First Amendment, struck down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 that made it illegal to falsely tout military honors. That controversial court decision eventually led to the amended Stolen Valor Act of 2013 that makes it a federal crime to falsely claim such honors if there is profit to be made.

Jacob Zimmerman, who took over as superintendent for the Kane County Veterans Assistance Commission in March, says he’s long been fascinated with “stolen valor,” and having worked as a Veteran Service Officer for the state of Illinois, has run into cases himself.

His Kane County office is doing more fact-checking these days, as the number of vets coming through the doors is on the rise. Zimmerman is also on a mission to find these local veterans.

Kane and St. Clair counties, he pointed out, have close to the same number of veterans (25,674 in Kane). Yet St. Clair brings in $88 million in veterans assistance a year, while Kane brings in just $28 million. That means there are a lot of local vets unaware of available assistance.

Patriotic gratitude is running high these days. But those emotions also open the door for abuse. Help is available, he insisted, but it needs to go to those “who earned it.”

In this case, Zimmerman, too, wonders why the dog’s owner embellished his canine’s storyline when the work of any animal trained to assist veterans is compelling enough.

The moral of this dog tale is obvious enough: Check out service records carefully. Because people too often lie or exaggerate, doubt is cast over all military stories.

And that’s an unfortunate fact.

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