Sen. Tom Croci, a Republican whose district covers part of Long Island, sponsored a bill that will make such stolen valor a felony, and will require those convicted to pay a $250 fee as part of their punishment to a state fund that maintains and establishes veterans cemeteries. The bill passed the state senate Monday, but may have an uphill fight toward becoming law.

Croci, a commander who served as an active-duty intelligence officer from 1999 to 2007 before joining the Reserve, said he comes at the issue from two perspectives: One, as a service member who supported Navy SEALs during Operation Enduring Freedom.

"It got a lot of attention in the Naval Special Warfare community, the SEAL community, when individuals were out there claiming that they were ‘operators,’ Croci told Military Times said Thursday. "I understand what those men go through to earn their Trident, and also what they endure in combat. … That has an effect on you, even though you’re in a support capacity."

A second vantage point: Croci said his home county has the most veterans in New York state, and that his bill ensures former service members get the respect they've earned — and that others don't get ripped off.

"You don't want the uniform or the decorations, in any way, disgraced," he said. "And you certainly don't want the hard-earned taxpayer dollars that they think are going to veterans to be abused by people impersonating veterans."

The bill needs to clear the state assembly and the governor's office before becoming law. Croci said he was "cautiously optimistic, but realistic" about that happening, saying "there's a strand of New York legislator in Albany that doesn't want to see any increased criminal penalties for anything."

If passed, the bill would make create a new crime of stolen valor, classified as a Class E felony, the state’s lowest classification, which includes a wide swath of illegal activity from fixing sporting events and to forgery to low-level insurance fraud. Penalties rarely involve jail time, relying instead on probation and/or fines.

The federal Stolen Valor Act of 2005 made it a crime to claim unearned military honors, regardless of the benefits obtained by such claims. The Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional in 2012, with some justices citing First Amendment protections for false statements.

A 2013 federal law made it illegal to make the claims only if they came "with intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit." Those convicted face fines and up to a year in jail.

Several states have weighed in since the Supreme Court’s ruling, including some with actual or proposed penalties more severe than those offered by Croci’s legislation, which . Last year, for instance, A 2015 New Jersey passed a law that brings a fine of at least $1,000 for those who applies to wearing unearned military uniforms or awards to obtain benefits costs violators at least $1,000. A 2015 Wisconsin law makes false statements regarding military service, to which would include wearing unearned uniforms or awards, a Class A misdemeanor that can, which could come with a max fine of to $10,000 and up to nine months in jail.

A bill making its way through the Maryland state senate would punish valor thieves with up to a year in jail and a max fine of up to $2,500.

Croci began his term in January 2015 and is up for re-election this year. He said finding political rancor in areas he didn't expect it, including veterans issues, was one of the more difficult parts of his transition from his time in uniform to serving as an elected official.

"I’m not naive," he said, "and I understand that’s the way our system of government works, but there are a few issues, like veterans issues, like counterterrorism and homeland security issues, national security, taking care of people when they come home from combat operations, those should transcend" [politics]," he said."

New York Sen. Tom Croci, center, served on active duty as a Navy intelligence officer for eight years before joining the Navy Reserve in 2007. He's currently a commander, in addition to representing his Long Island district.

Photo Credit: Submitted photo

Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.

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