When Ryan Patrick Morris and Troy Allan Nelson appeared in court after violating the terms of their respective (and unrelated) probations last week, Montana's Cascade County District Judge Greg Pinksi added a unique list of punishments to their sentences — including an order to wear a sign saying "I am a liar" — for pretending that they had served in the military.
Ultimately, the judge sentenced Morris to 10 years in prison for a felony burglary charge with three years suspended, and Nelson received five years for felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs with two years suspended, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
But before either man can be eligible for parole, Pinski decided, Morris and Nelson must demonstrate remorse for their lies by writing letters of apology to the American Legion, AMVETS and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, among other groups. They also have to handwrite the names of all 6,756 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have to pen obituaries of the 40 Montanans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pinksi also ordered each man to complete 441 hours of community service — one hour for each of the Montanans killed in combat since the Korean War.
The self-flagellation must continue even after their release. Pinski mandated that every year during the portions of their suspended sentences they'll each have to visit the Montana Veterans Memorial for eight hours on Memorial and Veterans days wearing a placard that reads, "I am a liar. I am not a veteran. I stole valor. I have dishonored all veterans."
"There are certain people — shameful people — who have not put their lives on the line for this country who portray themselves as having done so," Pinski told the defendants, according to the newspaper.
"I want to make sure that my message is received loud and clear by these two defendants," Pinski said. "You've been nothing but disrespectful in your conduct. You certainly have not respected the Army. You've not respected the veterans. You've not respected the court. And you haven't respected yourselves."
Pinski's sign-wearing punishment follows similarly public punishments in recent years that have forced other lawbreakers to publicly parade their misdeeds. In 2012, a Cleveland woman was ordered to stand on a street corner holding a sign that read, "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus." A year later, an Ohio judge made one man hold a sign outside a police station that said, "I apologize to officer Simone & all police officers for being an idiot calling 911 threatening to kill you. I'm sorry and it will never happen again."
Morris and Nelson had asked to have their cases moved to veterans court in the hopes of receiving more lenient sentences.
Veterans courts have been set up as an alternative to the traditional justice system, seeking to provide treatment plans to address underlying issues unique to service men and women that may have led to crimes, including PTSD, anger issues and substance abuse problems.
In Morris' case he fabricated a harrowing and inspirational story. In 2017, the Tribune reported, he told the judge he had served seven combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and now suffered from PTSD. He said his hip was replaced after surviving an improvised explosive device incident and that after returning home he had joined an outreach team to help homeless veterans in his hometown. None of it was true, and it was his own father who eventually outed him.
Nelson's lie was less detailed, but he did manage to enroll in Veterans Treatment Court before he was discovered as a fraud, the paper found.
Despite Pinski's evident disdain for the men's lies, neither was charged with stolen valor, which makes it a federal crime "for an individual to fraudulently hold oneself out to be a recipient of any of several specified military decorations or medals with the intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit."
The two men apologized in court for lying about their nonexistent military service.