Military Connection: A Case of Stolen Valor

Purple Heart

By Debbie Gregory

Many teams across the sporting world have started a tradition of honoring a service member during one of their games. The crowd ceremoniously rises to their feet and cheers for the sacrifice the “Service Member of the Game” has made for their country. But what if their valor was all a lie?

The University of North Carolina football organization faced this issue when Seaman Matthew Cottom was honored. Standing in the middle of the field, Cottom listened to an announcer over the loudspeaker tell of his harrowing story of being shot while on deployment, and suffering a heart attack after he returned home. Cottom waved to the crowd, displaying a uniform covered with medals and ribbons, including the prestigious Purple Heart. However, there was one glaring problem: Cottom hadn’t earned a single one.

In a court-martial appearance, Cottom pleaded guilty to wearing unauthorized insignia and ribbons on his uniform on two occasions –Military Appreciation Day at UNC Chapel Hill and while he attended church, on a July Sunday, back home in Mississippi.

In this disgusting tale of stolen valor, Cottom even had his parents believing that he had been shot. His father, Ron Cottom, only found out the truth shortly before his son was charged.

What makes this lie even more egregious is that Cottom has never even been in combat, let alone injured. And while a heart condition did result in Cottom being placed on limited duty service at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance, he never suffered a heart attack.

Disappointed that his health was holding him back, Cottom told the judge that he wanted to make his family proud, which led to the fabricated stories.

“I realize that was very wrong,” he added. “And I should have just been happy with where I was in the Navy and that I’d be able to do better things down the road.”

The judge, Capt. Charles Purnell, confronted the sailor with questions about his wrongdoings. Cottom acknowledged that if someone saw him wearing the unauthorized ribbons and knew he hadn’t earned them, it could lower their trust in the military, and discredit service members that had earned their medals.

Testimony showed that Cottom had put a photo on Facebook wearing the Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist insignia and ribbons representing the NATO medal and the Expert Rifle medal, none of which he had rightfully earned. The photo was Cottom’s attempt to impress the people back home.

As a proud father, Ron Cottom decided to arrange a visit to the University of North Carolina during the weekend of Military Appreciation Day football game. After hearing his story, UNC athletics spokesman Rick Steinbacher invited the sailor to be honored.

Wearing unauthorized medals and ribbons, Cottom attended the game, and a video of him was posted on YouTube. Within days, complaints of stolen valor reached the Navy, and Cottom’s boss.

Cottom’s defense attorney, Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Kelly, admitted that her client had issues with self-esteem and that he acted without honor. The prosecutor, Lt. Kevin Brandwein, has asked for a dishonorable discharge, and Kelly conceded that, more than likely, her client will receive an other-than-honorable discharge.

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Military Connection: A Case of Stolen Valor: By Debbie Gregory