At least one military veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took umbrage when he noticed at a funeral and other ceremonies West Valley City Police officers wearing armed forces ribbons, including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, Army Distinguished Service Medal and others without having earned them.
Retired Marine Sgt. Maj. Nick Lopez became further frustrated when he took his concerns to WVCPD Deputy Chief Mike Powell several months ago, then never heard back from the city, despite calls, letters and emails to city officials. All this after he read a story in the Military Times about the Sanford, Fla., police department's decision to cease using military awards to honor its officers. A veteran had complained after he saw on television a Sanford police officer wearing a military ribbon while testifying in the high-profile George Zimmerman trial.
The military takes seriously the unauthorized and unearned wearing of official military ribbons and medals awarded to soldiers for valor. Such unauthorized use is often called "stolen valor."
Powell told me on Friday that Lopez's concerns were taken seriously and have led to a change in policy, although Lopez has not yet been notified.
Powell said the department is still finalizing its new rules and plans to send Lopez a formal letter of explanation.
Many of the police ribbons earned by officers are similar in design to military ribbons, said West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle, a 21-year Army reservist who took a leave of absence in 2006 for a 15-month deployment to Afghanistan. Pyle said the police and city officials exhaustively researched the issue and determined the department had done nothing wrong. But the ribbons officers earned from the department are being redesigned to eliminate any perception that they are wearing military awards without earning them.
Lopez told me that several other veterans have shared with him their concerns about the WVC police ribbons. He pointed to state and federal laws that prohibit the unauthorized display of military ribbons or medals.
In fact, a former Army Reserve officer in Utah made the front cover of the Army Times in 2007 after pleading guilty to lying about awards he had received in order to get a promotion. He had falsely claimed and displayed on his uniform the Silver Star (the third highest award for valor), the Special Forces and Ranger tabs, the Senior Parachutist Badge, the Military Free-fall Parachutist Badge and several others.
It didn't help his case that it went before U.S. Magistrate Paul Warner, a retired Utah National Guard colonel.
Pyle and Powell pointed out that the law specifies the wearing or use of the awards are criminal if they are done to intentionally commit fraud. Having local police ribbons that are similar to military ribbons doesn't fit that criteria, they say.
Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith, in response to pressure from veterans, said: "It was determined some 10 to 15 years ago that using the ribbons in question would be appropriate by the administration at that time ... I believe that it's an unfortunate situation, which we will correct ..."