Association Leader Admits Stolen Valor, Doesn’t Lose Job

The Korean War Veterans Association chose to let its leader finish out his current term despite his admission that he wore medals he didn't earn. It's a major point of controversy in military circles, and here's why.

Stolen valor is a huge issue among members of the military, but when a high-profile leader of a veterans association admitted to it, his association stuck by him. And it may have been a quick apology that saved his job.

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I think he made a mistake and we’re sad about that, but we don’t think that’s enough to discredit him in the eyes of what we’re doing.

What happened: The Korean War Veterans Association’s president, James Ferris, admitted to The (Syracuse) Post-Standard on Wednesday that the military medals he wore during a series of public events, including those involving President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, were not his own but his brother’s. Further, Ferris, while serving during the period of the Korean War, did not serve in a combat role. Instead, he had administrative roles in the United States and Japan during that time. “I am extremely sorry, embarrassed, and sick over this whole thing,” Ferris told the newspaper in a note. “But I can take some solace in the fact that the work I have done for the Korean vets over the last 15 years or so has been appreciated by the officers of the organization.” The 81-year-old Marine Corps veteran’s brother, Frank, died in the 90s, and Ferris has worn the medals ever since, saying that nobody—not even his wife—knew.

Why it’s an issue: Stolen valor is a significant issue in military circles, as such medals are seen as significant honors for work done in combat. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed a law making it illegal to wear military medals falsely, but the law was struck down for First Amendment reasons. Congress is working on the issue, with the House and Senate considering a bill called the Stolen Valor Act, which would criminalize lying about one’s military career. The bill would have an exception for military medals, however.

A policy of forgiveness: Perhaps the most interesting element of Ferris’ story is not that he wore military medals he didn’t earn, but that his association was willing to forgive him for the misdeed. His resignation was rejected by the board of directors. “He’s been an excellent president for our organization and we feel like he should stay in office and continue to do the good work he’s been doing,” said Larry Kinard, the group’s vice president, to the Associated Press. “I think he made a mistake and we’re sad about that, but we don’t think that’s enough to discredit him in the eyes of what we’re doing.” Ferris will remain in his position until June 2014.

A comparison point: When Lance Armstrong came clean about the allegations against him, the problem that he faced was that it took him a very long time, including many denials, to admit what actually happened. As Chloe Thompson explained on Associations Now earlier this year, “The longer you wait to tell the truth, the less faith your followers will have in you—and the more skeptical they become.” That Ferris admitted his misdeed shortly after evidence became public about it, and was sincere about his apology, probably saved his job. Ferris also emphasized that he greatly respected his board for sticking by him. “I’m pretty happy they have that much faith in me,” he said. “I’ve worked hard for the Korean War Veterans Association. Very hard.”

When faced with a similar situation where a leader has lost his way, how would you handle this within your board? When does the importance of a leader’s service outweigh the public misdeed?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Korean War Veterans Association President James Ferris, shown with former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. (photo by Secretary of Defense/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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