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Man's Purple Hearts have question marks

Rick Strandlof, who posed as a veteran fresh from Fallouja, Iraq, is arrested in San Diego on Stolen Valor Act charges.

October 10, 2009|DeeDee Correll

DENVER — A self-described schizophrenic who posed as a wounded Marine captain and advocated for veterans' causes for more than a year before he was unveiled as a fraud was arrested Friday in San Diego, federal officials reported.

Rick Glen Strandlof, 32, will be charged with making false claims about the receipt of military medals, a misdemeanor under the Stolen Valor Act, a three-year-old law that criminalizes either wearing or claiming to have a medal that one did not earn.

If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $250,000 fine.

"He told me he had two or three Purple Hearts, and it was all a lie," said Strandlof's former friend Joe Barrera, a Vietnam veteran in Colorado Springs.

Assuming the name of Rick Duncan, Strandlof arrived in 2007 in Colorado Springs, where he portrayed himself as a veteran fresh from the battlefields of Fallouja, Iraq, still recovering from brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. He formed a veterans advocacy group and ingratiated himself with the military community, hosting events for vets and protesting the Iraq war.

Apparently, none of what he told others about himself -- from his three tours in Iraq to the metal plate in his head -- was true. In fact, Strandlof was an unemployed war protester from Reno. Court records in a 2005 car-theft conviction indicate that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Strandlof's true identity came out in May after other members of his veterans group began to investigate him. They contacted federal authorities, who had him arrested on an unrelated traffic warrant. He was jailed for about a month.

Strandlof admitted in June to his deceptions and blamed them on his mental health issues, saying he has schizophrenia. "I sometimes believe things other people know not to be true," he said.

According to an arrest affidavit, the charges against Strandlof stem from claims he allegedly made to several acquaintances that he had received a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq.

At a March 2008 meeting to discuss an upcoming fundraiser, he told the attendees the same thing. In one instance, he agreed to wear his medals at a veterans' event, but showed up without them. Questioned, he said he did not wear his Purple Heart or Silver Star because "it would appear egotistical," according to the affidavit.

Until the passage of the Stolen Valor Act in 2006, it was illegal to wear a medal one did not receive, but few were prosecuted because it was rare to catch anyone actually wearing medals, said Doug Sterner, a Pueblo, Colo., man who lobbied for the legislation and is pushing for a government database of medal recipients.

Since 2006, federal officials have prosecuted more than 50 people nationwide, all of them successfully, he said. Cases like Strandlof's have occurred all over the country and involve people of all political persuasions, Sterner noted.

FBI investigators tracked down Strandlof on Friday in San Diego, where he apparently headed after his release from jail in June.

In Colorado Springs, Barrera, despite his anger, acknowledged the contributions that Strandlof had made. "Ironically, Rick did some good for local veterans," he said.

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deedee.correll@latimes.com

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