Massachusetts has a set of new laws on the books to safeguard the integrity of benefits, programs, and services intended for members of the military, veterans and their families.
With active members of the armed services and military veterans looking on, Governor Charlie Baker signed five bills at a Statehouse ceremony earlier this week, including one that makes “stolen valor” a crime punishable by imprisonment, a fine, or both.
The law that makes it a crime to impersonate an active member or veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces to obtain money, property, or some other tangible benefit was sponsored by freshman State Rep. John Velis of Westfield, who is a decorated veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
He said no veteran should have their valor stolen.
" It is morally reprehensible. It is disgusting," he said.
Velis said instances where someone impersonates a veteran to try to obtain benefits or entitlements are more common than people realize.
" This is a practice that is very widespread." he said. " It is very easy to forge a military discharge document and then, for example, apply for a VA home loan."
The law, which carries a penalty of up to one year imprisonment, a $1,000 fine, or both, could be applied if someone posed as a veteran to take advantage of discounts or other promotions offered by retailers.
"We have enhanced penalties for certain classes of things in the Commonwealth and what this does is create a separate criminal statute for those who commit fraud with respect to service members and veterans," said Velis.
Velis, who is an attorney, said there are similar laws in 15 other states, but the one in Massachusetts is the broadest in scope, with the toughest penalties.
The bill Velis filed passed both chambers of the legislature by unanimous votes.
Eric Segundo, state junior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said veterans across the state supported the Stolen Valor Act.
"Massachusetts leads the nation in the veteran's benefits it provides and it also protects those benefits," he said. " I think it is outstanding what we've put forward."
Segundo, who is the Director of Veterans Services in Ludlow, said after the bill signing he heard from officials in Maine and Nevada who requested copies of the Massachusetts law.
" I think this is a nationwide movement," he said.
Baker also signed laws to make it a crime to steal commemorative flag holders from the graves of veterans, police officers and firefighters, to add new criminal penalties for the buying and selling of stolen grave markers or headstones honoring veterans and public safety officers, and to require vandals who damage war memorials or a veteran’s gravestone to make restitution to the property owner in addition to any other fines or penalties.
He also signed a bill allowing for permanent free access for Purple Heart recipients to state parks and recreation areas.
The Baker administration announced that admission fees to state parks and forests will be waived for service members and veterans for the Thanksgiving weekend.
Free state park access was offered to military members and veterans on Veterans Day, but it rained all day.