I’m a proud veteran, although my role in the Vietnam War was a minor one. I served as a teenage sailor on an aircraft carrier that performed combat operations on “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.
As a writer, I’ve interviewed a good many veterans over the years from wars ranging from World War II to Afghanistan. If there is one common denominator beyond shared service, it is a disdain for non-veterans who flat-out lie about being military combat veterans. It is valor stolen from the actual men and women who sacrificed and suffered hardships, faced danger, and were wounded or died in combat.
Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, it is a crime to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefits while fraudulently claiming to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and other combat medals. The Stolen Valor Act criminalized the act of lying to receive employment reserved for veterans, and other benefits afforded to true veterans.
It is not a crime to tell phony stories about military service and combat duty, but many true veterans wish it was. It is a crime, however, to defraud the Veterans Administration for medical benefits based on lies about military service.
On Sept. 8, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia announced that Richard Meleski, 58, was sentenced to three years and four months in prison, three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $302,121 in restitution for his fraudulent scheme to steal VA benefits by lying about being a Navy SEAL who had been captured by the enemy during combat actions.
In fact, Meleski never served a day in uniform, let alone served as a Navy SEAL.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office stated that, in July of 2020, Meleski pleaded guilty to one count of health-care fraud, two counts of mail fraud, one count of stolen valor, two counts of fraudulent military papers, as well as two counts of aiding and abetting straw purchases, and one count of making false statements in connection with receiving Social Security Administration disability benefits.
According to the Justice Department, Meleski claimed fraudulently to have served as a Navy SEAL and had been a prisoner of war so he could receive health-care benefits from the VA worth more than $300,000. He received health care from the VA in Priority Group 3, effectively receiving health care before other deserving military service members.
Meleski also filed for monetary compensation from the VA for PTSD that he suffered from action in Beirut in which he rescued injured teammates. In his application for disability benefits for PTSD, Meleski claimed falsely that he had been awarded the Silver Star for heroic actions as a Navy SEAL. Meleski also submitted another application to the VA for monetary compensation in which he included obituaries of actual Navy SEALs alongside whom he claimed he had served.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office noted that Meleski also filed for disability benefits from the U. S. Social Security Administration for injuries he said he received during his time in the SEAL teams. Meleski testified falsely under oath in connection with an SSA Disability proceeding.
“The defendant faked a record as a decorated U.S. Navy SEAL in order to collect numerous forms of taxpayer-funded compensation,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said. “The fact that Meleski chose to put himself ahead of true war heroes to take advantage of benefits designed specifically for those serving in the U.S. military is profoundly offensive. Our veterans fought for the freedoms we hold dear, and as we approach the 20th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 this Saturday, their sacrifices are even more meaningful. The defendant’s actions dishonor all of their legacies.”
Matthew Varisco, the Special Agent in Charge of the ATF Philadelphia Field Division, added, “This defendant defrauded the government in many different ways for several years. The outcome of this investigation is the result of several law enforcement agencies working together for a common goal – to keep our communities safe from criminals like Meleski.”
Christopher Algieri, the Special Agent in Charge of the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, Northeast Field Office, stated that with support of the United States Attorney’s Office and their law enforcement partners, they were able to secure justice in this case for America’s true heroes.
“Today’s sentence sends a clear message that those who benefit from falsely claiming to have served in the United States military will be held accountable,” Algieri said.
Meleski belongs in prison, where he will, at last, actually wear a uniform.
Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. He can be contacted via pauldavisoncrime.com.