A Marine veteran in Massachusetts — who admitted in 2022 to lying about aspects of his service — faces federal charges for allegedly claiming he had a traumatic brain injury to get a Purple Heart and collecting more than $344,000 in unearned veteran disability benefits.
Paul John “PJ” Herbert, 52, of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, sent the Marine Corps a fraudulent request for a Purple Heart through his congressman, according to an indictment filed Thursday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.
The congressman who represented Shelburne Falls at the time was Rep. Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, whose office didn’t respond by time of publication to a Marine Corps Times request for comment.
Herbert allegedly said in the request for the Purple Heart — a decoration given to service members wounded or killed in conflict — that he had sustained the traumatic brain injury from a roadside explosion while deployed to northern Iraq.
“In truth and in fact, as the defendant well knew, his statement was false,” the indictment reads.
He was indicted on one count of theft of government money and one count of making false statements.
The alleged theft of benefits took place between January 2010 and March 2023, according to the indictment. The indictment provides few other details about what Herbert is alleged to have done.
“Mr. Herbert’s alleged conduct is an affront to every veteran who has sacrificed to earn the honor of a Purple Heart and who is deserving of disability benefits,” U.S. Joshua Levy for the District of Massachusetts said in a news release announcing the charges.
Herbert served in the Marine Corps from December 1989 until January 1994, and attained the rank of corporal, according to Corps spokeswoman Yvonne Carlock.
A landing support specialist, Herbert last served at 1st Transportation Support Battalion, Combat Logistics Regiment 1, 1st Force Service Support Group, at Camp Pendleton, California.
There is no record of him deploying, according to Carlock. His list of awards wasn’t available.
There are indications Herbert may have transferred to another branch of service, but it’s unclear which, Carlock said.
Chris Demars, an Army National Guard veteran who is the director of Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services, said Tuesday he met Herbert at a Memorial Day event a decade ago in Demars’ hometown of Gill, Massachusetts.
Herbert, who was wearing a Bronze Star marked with a “V” for valor, told Demars he earned his medal while working with indigenous forces in Iraq.
When Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services invited Herbert to speak at a Veterans Day event in 2019, the organization asked for his DD-214 discharge paperwork to help with writing an introductory bio, Demars told Marine Corps Times.
The paperwork Herbert provided didn’t mention a Bronze Star or a Combat Action Ribbon, both of which the Marine veteran wore on his dress uniform, according to Demars.
When Demars and other local veteran leaders pointed out the discrepancy, Herbert provided a memorandum associated with his supposed Bronze Star.
“It looked like it was something from the Korean War or World War II,” Demars said. “I have two Bronze Stars. I know exactly what a Bronze Star writeup looks like, and it was fraudulent.”
After doing some more digging, the suspicious veterans contacted federal investigators.
What really rankles Demars: The day they first met, Demars told Herbert about the event that earned him one of his Purple Hearts. After being wounded, Demars said, he remembered the sound of the helicopter as he was evacuated.
Demars said he believes Herbert later passed off his story from the Army National Guard as his own.
“I do think about it, and can sometimes hear the propeller or helicopter noise,” Herbert told The Daily Hampshire Gazette in 2017 of the day he was purportedly wounded.
In August 2022, Herbert admitted publicly to lying about aspects of his military service, The Greenfield Recorder reported.
“I just needed to feel important,” he told the Recorder at the time. “I started feeling important and feeling good about myself and I didn’t know a way to get out. I know I hurt a lot of people that trusted me and cared about me and everything else.”
The Veterans Affairs’ Office of the Inspector General, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts jointly investigated the allegations against Herbert, according to the news release.
Herbert was arrested Friday following his indictment the day before, according to the court docket. At an initial court hearing after his arrest, Herbert pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released. Among the conditions for his release are that he participate in a mental health treatment program and remain in Massachusetts or New Hampshire without governmental approval, according to court documents.
Herbert’s attorney, Tracy Duncan, did not respond by time of publication to Marine Corps Times requests for comment.
If convicted, Herbert could face up to 10 years in prison and three years of supervised release for the charge of theft of government money, and up to five years in prison and three years of supervised release for the charge of making a false statement, according to the prosecution’s news release. Herbert could also be forced to pay up $250,000 or twice the total gain or loss from his alleged crimes, whichever is greater.
Demars said he is grateful to the VA investigator for his work on the case and glad the allegations against Herbert have finally come to light.
“It’s been tough trying to hold back all these years,” he said.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.