Military stories vary widely: some are the moments that make history, secure victories or result in resounding losses. Others are merely moments of day to day life. Still others are incredible stories of heroism, saving lives and greatly impacting others.
The men and women who are awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest distinction that the U.S. military can bestow, are real heroes. The Medal itself is meant to honor the heroism of those individuals, to remember and celebrate their bravery in the face of uncertain and terrifying situations. Yet for one 67-year-old Florida veteran, the Medal of Honor came to signify pettiness, lies, and total embarrassment.
Jackie Stern, an Army veteran from the Korean War, was known for his Medal of Honor. A resident of Florida’s Broward County, Stern’s neighbors and surrounding community knew him as their local hero. He often marched in patriotic parades, shared stories with local veterans’ organizations and schools, and spoke about his heroic, medal-worthy military history before large groups at police stations, wearing his medal at each and every event. In fact, Stern wore his Medal of Honor every time he walked out of his home. He was synonymous with his story and his medal, becoming a local public figure.
Everyone believed that Stern was a hero – after all, he constantly talked about that fateful day in Korea when he risked his own life to save his unit. For an entire decade, Stern traveled through southern Florida to share his story.
As Sargent Dan Ciacciarelli of the Broward County Sheriff’s Department told reporters, “He marched around in parades. He came around reviewing ROTC troops, even coming in here to get photographed wearing the medal. He’s pretty brazen.” The local sheriffs knew Stern by sight: his car bore a POW tag on its front bumper and a purple heart license plate on the back.
Yet everything Stern said – everything his community believed – was a lie.
Tall Tales and Public Parades Draw Police Attention
Of course, a hero who was brave enough and selfless enough to earn the highest military distinction in the nation wouldn’t mind sharing his story with others. That’s exactly how Stern was found out to be a phony – his public displays and attention-grabbing stories garnered the attention of his local Broward sheriff’s department. Officers, like so many others in the community, had listened to and watched Stern use his medal to impress. The sheriffs began to grow suspicious of a veteran and medal-winner who was so vocal, so visible, and they decided to question Stern.
Officers, like so many others in the community, had listened to and watched Stern use his medal to impress. The sheriffs began to grow suspicious of a veteran and medal-winner who was so vocal, so visible, and they decided to question Stern.
When the Broward County Sheriff’s Department began questioning Stern about his military career and his path to the Medal of Honor, Stern fessed up, and his entire story fell apart. Not only did Stern not earn an official medal and its recognition, but the former soldier admitted that he’d never even left the U.S. during a conflict. He was a military man stationed at home as a bread truck driver and polygraph operator, safe from danger.
The Sheriffs questioning Stern arrested him. Stern appeared before the U.S. District Court and pleaded guilty to federal charges, apologizing to veterans in the courtroom. He admitted that his behavior was pitiful, a sad and stupid attempt to falsify greater honor. By confessing his guilt, Stern faced a potential sentence of six months in jail. Lucky for him, the judge instead chose one year of probation, 171 letters of apology to the living Medal of Honor recipients, and to volunteer in a way that would give back to veterans.
How Did an Average Man Get His Hands on a Medal of Honor?
Perhaps the most surprising fact in the story of Jackie Stern is how a Medal of Honor fell into his hands in the first place. When Congress awards a military member the Medal of Honor, the veteran is awarded the medal during an official ceremony. So, if Stern was truly awarded the Medal of Honor, there would be official records of the event.
Yet no such proof existed – and that’s because Stern’s medal was purchased and not earned. He bought the medal at a New Jersey military show. He paid just $800 and discovered that the medal was authentic. However, it had never been officially issued or awarded to any veteran. Stern believed he was in the clear. With an official medal, he expected to wow other veterans and his entire community without any suspicions.
Stern Serves His Sentence and Completes His Apology
Unsurprisingly, a man like Stern who openly discussed, emphasized, and even advertised his Medal of Honor drew attention to himself from his local police department. Stern earned himself both a legal sentence and punishment. As mentioned previously, the U.S. District Court ordered Stern to publish an apology in regional newspapers on Memorial Day and to write personal letters of apology to all living recipients of the Medal of Honor.
Stern’s apology included the following acknowledgments of the brave men and women who rightfully earned their Medals of Honor, as well as acceptance of his grave crime. “I know that my actions have cheapened the honor of those who have received this valiant award and my pitiful attempt and selfish quest for family recognition has tarnished the dignity of all the brave men and women on whom this medal was legitimately bestowed.”
Once he had apologized, Stern focused on the second half of his sentence: volunteering for a total of 250 hours at a Veterans Administration Hospital. Though Jackie Stern completed his punishment, he never did win back the affection he’d garnered from his community. In fact, after his trial, Stern faced an entire town against him. Local citizens and veterans believed Stern should face an even greater retribution.