Man lied about military medals, won trip to Las Vegas, feds say

After being struck in the face and head by shrapnel while on patrol in Iraq in 2005, Aaron Joshua Lawless performed first aid on a fellow soldier and returned enemy fire with a damaged gun, before being struck by an explosive device — an ordeal that earned him a Purple Heart and Silver Star.

At least, that's how Lawless recounted his time in Iraq to his employer, a Maryland gun store, and the Glock gun-manufacturing company, which decided to honor Lawless as its 2008 "Glock Hero." The 25-year-old and his wife received a trip to Las Vegas, two Glock guns and a crystal glass trophy, a package worth $3,505.91.

But almost none of Lawless' claims of valor on the battlefield is true, according to agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who filed a criminal complaint Thursday in federal court in Maryland.

Lawless did serve in the Marines, according to his military records — but only for 35 days. He was discharged in June 2003 for not disclosing an injury to his right knee before joining the corps, the affidavit said.

And Lawless served in Iraq in 2006 as a soldier, but was sent home in July of that year for severe headaches, the affidavit said. His military record indicates that at no time did Lawless suffer from battle injuries or receive the high-level military honors he claimed, according to an ATF agent's interview with Lt. Col. Pat L. Kerbuski, at the time the deputy chief of staff for the 101st Airborne Division.

Agents from the ATF state in court documents that Lawless spun a far more dramatic tale for his employer, Atlantic Guns in Silver Spring, and the Glock company. Among the injuries Lawless claimed: being shot in the buttocks and leg in Fallujah, getting hit by a roadside bomb in Bayji and suffering from shrapnel in his brain from another roadside bomb, all in Iraq.

In all, Lawless said he earned four Purple Hearts, one Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for battle injuries in 2005 and 2006 while serving with the Marines and Army throughout Iraq, the documents state.

Lawless has received a summons to appear in federal court in Greenbelt on Feb. 23, said Marcy Murphy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office.

The ATF agent who wrote the affidavit, John P. Cooney, declined to comment on the case, citing an open investigation.

Falsely claiming to have earned a medal from the U.S. military is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison, under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005.

The Maryland case is not Lawless' first run-in with federal authorites.

He was charged in Nebraska with possessing unregistered machine guns without serial numbers and with barrel lengths shorter than the length mandated by law, said Alan Everett, an assistant U.S. attorney in that state. Lawless was also charged with unlawfully using a controlled substance.

Lawless pleaded guilty to possessing machine guns without serial numbers and agreed to forfeit the firearms, Everett said. In December 2009, Lawless was sentenced to time served and three years of supervised release.

Steve Schneider, the owner of Atlantic Guns, said Lawless worked in his store part time throughout 2008, eventually moving back to Nebraska when his wife became pregnant. Lawless, whom Schneider described as personable and a good fit with other employees, was referred to him by the Veterans of Foreign Wars as an injured veteran stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who enjoyed guns and hunting, Schneider said.

While working at Atlantic Guns, Lawless would describe in great detail how he sustained his injuries, Schneider said.

"You're a trusting person, and you just don't question something like that," Schneider said Friday. "I knew he was connected with Walter Reed, I knew he was in the military."

As an employee, Lawless worked sporadically, and was often unable to work because of extreme pain, Schneider said. At the time, Schneider believed the pain was due to a shrapnel injury to Lawless' brain. In reality, the affidavit said, Lawless suffered from a pre-existing brain lesion that was removed in 2008.

Schneider hasn't spoken to Lawless since he moved back to Nebraska. Schneider learned of the alleged deceit when law enforcement officials in Nebraska contacted him last spring.

"I'm trusting," he said. "I would probably do the same thing over again."

A Glock representative met Lawless during a marketing event at Schneider's store and thought he would make a good candidate for the company's Glock Hero Award in 2008.

"Aaron Lawless," Glock said in a biography at the time of his award, "is one of an endless list of young men and women that have answered their nations [sic] call. We feel Aaron's story needs to be told."

The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Since the Stolen Valor Act was signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, prosecutors have pursued a number of cases against people thought to be falsely claiming military honors.

A Colorado man, Rick Glen Strandlof, claimed he had received a Purple Heart and Silver Star after being wounded in Iraq while serving with the Marines. The Marine Corps had no record of Strandlof serving, and he was arrested in 2009, the Associated Press reported. His case is still going through the courts.

Tom Davis, the department adjutant for the Maryland branch of the American Legion, said lying about military honors is akin to "stealing from your buddy in the foxhole."

Prospective employers can verify an individual's military service by calling the Army's personnel and human resources division, said Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman.

"These cases are extremely regrettable, but they do happen," Tallman said. "We do have a mechanism to be able to verify awards and decorations information" and periods of service, he said.

The American Legion frequently removes individuals from its rosters who are not qualified for membership but somehow managed to sign up through a local branch — such as National Guard members who mistakenly thought they were eligible, Davis said.

But never in his experience, Davis said, has he knowingly encountered someone who embellished their service the way investigators say Lawless did.

"The individual should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Davis said. "It insults the vets who made the ultimate sacrifice and honestly earned their medals and awards."

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