Feds Accuse Former Marine of Spreading Bogus Purple Heart Tale

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/LinkedIn
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/LinkedIn

A Marine Corps veteran who falsely claimed to have been the sole survivor of an enemy IED blast in Iraq—going so far as to submit a bogus application for a Purple Heart—is now facing federal charges for receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars related to life-altering injuries the feds say never existed.

Paul John “P.J.” Herbert, 52, was arrested Friday morning by federal agents in Western Massachusetts. He served in the Marines on active duty from 1989 to 1993, and in the reserves from 1993 to 1995. But beginning some 15 years after separating from the service, and continuing through March 2023, Herbert “did, on a recurring basis, knowingly and willfully embezzle, steal, purloin and convert to his use… disability benefits [worth] approximately $344,040,” according to a grand jury indictment unsealed Sept. 1.

In a Purple Heart application submitted through his local congressman on Oct. 18, 2018, Herbert claimed he had suffered traumatic brain injury from a roadside explosion while deployed to Northern Iraq, the indictment states, adding, “In truth and fact, as the defendant well knew, his statement was false.”

Herbert is charged with one count of theft of government money and one count of making false statements. He appeared before a judge on Friday afternoon, and was released pending his next court date.

“I will not be discussing the case,” Herbert’s lawyer, Tracy Duncan, told The Daily Beast.

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The Purple Heart dates back to the waning days of the Revolutionary War, and is awarded to those wounded or killed in combat. It is considered one of the U.S. military’s most solemn honors, and recipients are entitled to a plethora of perks including preferential hiring status for federal jobs, tax breaks, and health care prioritization by the VA. Herbert also reportedly obtained a free service dog, with all expenses paid by the VA. As the saying goes, it is a medal that “nobody wants to earn,” representing a level of sacrifice unthinkable to many. Purple Heart recipients often engender instant respect, which has prompted some vets to greatly embellish their records.

Sharon Toney-Finch, an Army veteran who was inducted last July into the New York State Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame, made the Purple Heart a central aspect of her public persona, once appearing on Fox News to unveil a set of Purple Heart commemorative coins. She claimed her convoy was ambushed during her second deployment to Iraq in 2010, leaving her with a traumatic brain injury. However, a U.S. Army spokesman told The Daily Beast in May that the Department of Defense had “nothing on file indicating a Purple Heart.”

Last year, Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, a Rhode Island woman who never even served was arrested and charged after posing as a Purple Heart recipient to allegedly bilk charities out of almost $250,000 while faking Stage IV cancer and a traumatic brain injury she claimed to have sustained in Iraq.

In 2017, the Daily Hampshire Gazette ran an adulatory profile of Herbert, in which he described traveling through the mountains of Iraq with a contingent of British Royal Marines when they hit an IED. Herbert said he and the others were providing safe passage to Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks, under Operation Provide Comfort, which stretched from 1991 to 1996.

“I do think about it, and can sometimes hear the propeller or helicopter noise,” Herbert told the paper, recalling his supposed first thoughts after regaining consciousness.

He said he was evacuated to a hospital in Turkey before being sent back to Iraq a few weeks later.

But a group of veterans realized that some of Herbert’s tales didn’t make sense, according to one who spoke to the Recorder in 2022. For one, IEDs did not come into regular use in Iraq until the early 2000s. And vets who knew Herbert and had seen his discharge papers were further taken aback when, at an event, he told stories that didn’t match up with his official service record. Further, a local veteran said details of his own near-death experience in Afghanistan—specifically, the part about hearing a helicopter propeller upon coming to in Iraq—wound up in Herbert’s “recollections.” When they asked Herbert to provide proof of his claims, he gave them a form that hasn’t been used since the Korean War, according to the Recorder.

In August 2022, Herbert confessed publicly to having fabricated large portions of his personal history. At the same time, he told the Recorder that he really did suffer a traumatic brain injury when a boat he was riding in during a training exercise in California hit a sandbar. (There is no record of this happening, according to a veterans services official who investigated Herbert’s claims.) Beyond the Purple Heart, for which Herbert was, in the end, reportedly rejected, Herbert reportedly admitted to wearing more than a dozen other ribbons and medals he never earned.

“I just needed to feel important. I started feeling important and feeling good about myself and I didn’t know a way to get out,” Herbert told the Recorder last year. “I know I hurt a lot of people that trusted me and cared about me and everything else… I didn’t want any of that stuff. I got mad at myself. I hated myself. I still hate myself for this.”

In a statement released Friday, United States Attorney Joshua S. Levy said, “Every day, thousands of brave members of the military selflessly risk their lives to protect our country. Stealing from our country’s veterans or claiming valor where there is none is an insult to the honorable service members who sacrifice for our safety.”

If convicted, Herbert faces a maximum of 10 years in prison on the theft charge, and a maximum of five years on the false statements charge.

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