An Army soldier approached Detective John O'Connor in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when he grew suspicious upon seeing 75-year-old Robert Ford wearing a Marine’s dress uniform at an event called ArtsFest. According to the soldier, Ford’s hat was wrinkled and his belt buckle looked too ornate for his lance corporal rank. Together, the soldier and O’Connor, a former Marine who was working at the event, accused Ford of stealing valor.
"He's not a real Marine!" the officer shouted to the crowd at ArtsFest. "Stolen valor!”
Ford said he was humiliated by the public accusation and he did, in fact serve between 1958 and 1964. His name was later cleared with the help of Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran and archivist from Pueblo, Colorado, who works with stolen valor cases. Sterner confirmed Ford’s serve through Headquarters Marine Corps. "He's as legit as you can get,” Sterner said.
In addition to serving his country, Ford is actively involved with local veterans according to Anthony Flaynik, the commandant of the local detachment of the Marine Corps League. "He gives up his time volunteering for honor guard for veteran funerals every three weeks," Flaynik said of Ford. "He comes out in the rain, shine, hot, cold. We need to do what we can to help him."
In 2012, federal laws dealing with stolen valor were struck down, meaning fewer cases are being investigated. "The veteran community, frustrated and upset, is saying, 'OK. We'll do it ourselves,'" Sterner said. "But what it's leading to is a bunch of hot heads. ... There's a lot of bullying going on in the community now. It's almost like hunting game, going out looking for phonies.”
According to Ford, he attends ArtsFest on Memorial Day every year. He puts on his dress blues, visits the cemetery, participates in a wreathe laying ceremony and then goes to buy presents for his granddaughter at the festival.
While looking for gifts, O’Connor asked Ford about details of his service, including his specialization in machine guns, rockets and flame throwers. Ford was offended when O’Connor told him he was investigating a potential case of stolen valor, but he let it drop until they ran into each other 10 minutes later.
O’Connor asked Ford where he went to boot camp and they began arguing. "What am I trying to do?" Ford said. "Impersonate a lance corporal who never served in combat?”
Ford swore at the officer and they began shouting at each other and the Army soldier joined in. "I was getting very nervous," Ford said. "I was afraid to reach for my wallet.” Ford decided to walk away.
Ford filed a complaint against O’Connor and Capt. Deric Moody said he would investigate. Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse defended O’Connor’s actions. "It is unfortunate that Mr. Ford was wrongly accused," Papenfuse said, according to a news release. "But our initial findings indicate police officers acted appropriately and respectfully in this incident."