In May 2017, after the Department of Homeland Security reportedly tapped Wisconsin sheriff David Clarke for a job, stories appeared about the medals he typically wears to adorn his lapels, with many pointing out that Clarke has never served in the military.
These articles mainly dealt with the sensitive topic of what military veterans know as "stolen valor", which is the act of misleading the public by wearing unearned military medals or dressing in military uniform without having served.
Clarke, who already cuts a controversial figure as the sheriff of Milwaukee County, received a round of scrutiny after he announced in mid-May 2017 that he would accept an assistant secretary position with the Department of Homeland Security (although DHS has not yet confirmed such a position has been offered). Among the topics of scrutiny were the many pins he wears on his dress uniform.
For example, Salon.com posted a story on 19 May 2017 with the headline, "Looks like Sheriff David Clarke’s 'army' medals might be B.S." They reported:
In the wake of that, an interesting charge against Clarke surfaced in the form of a Twitter rant on Thursday.
At almost all of his public appearances, Clarke either wears a pristine cowboy hat with a natty suit or, more famously, a uniform festooned with shiny military medals. On Thursday, Twitter user Charles Clymer, an army veteran, pointed out that those military medals might not be all that legit.
“Look at this fucking guy’s uniform,” Clymer said, in the second of a long string of tweets on the subject. “You see all that shit pinned all over his dress uniform jacket? That’s not supposed to be there.”
Clymer went on to break down each individual medal, their placement and their apparently spurious provenance. Clymer acknowledged that legitimate medals are earned, and should be worn with pride, but accuses Clarke of “stolen valor” and calls Clarke’s collection, “a sloppy assortment of badge replicas arranged neatly, [that] looks imposing.”
We reached out to Clarke's spokesman, Craig Peterson, and the spokeswoman for the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office. Neither responded to our questions regarding Clarke's uniform. But Clarke himself went on the record about the issue as a guest on Newsmax TV's "The Joe Pags Show", where he said he doesn't wear "medals" and never falsely claimed to have served in the military.
He said he wears pins that have personal and emotional value for him, and called the attacks on the items a smear:
You know they're talking about some of the pins on my uniform, first of all they're not medals, they're pins. And they have very significant emotional and real value to me. Some of these have been handed to [me] by people who have lost sons and daughters in the line of duty, or a spouse.
So in support of like the C.O.P.S. Concerns of Police Survivors organization, I wear a ribbon for that. Some of these I have earned and some of these designate my completion of the FBI National Academy — they give you a pin. I wear that pin on my uniform. The FBI National Executive Institute, the Secret Service Dignitary Protection School, on and on and on.
But I've also been given pins by survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City, from cops, from people who lost sons and daughters in those attacks, talking about form law enforcement. And those things mean something to me, you know I honor them, I put them on the thing that's most important to me and that's the uniform. They're not medals, they're pins that designate that, I don't care what anybody says about it... There are ulterior motives. It's just to smear me.
However, many people who served in the armed forces took issue with the implication of the pins, even without an overt declaration that he was a military hero. Will Fischer, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, compared Clarke's pins to the "flair" placed on waiters' uniforms at the restaurant Chotchkie's in the Mike Judge cult film Office Space. Fischer told us:
Is it stolen valor? No. Is it pathetic? Yes. It's almost like he walks around and finds something shiny on the ground and just pins it upon himself. Some of it looks like things that came with a Halloween costume or "flair" in Office Space. I think he knows that if he puts things upon his uniform it can exude authority, or a tough guy persona.
But criticism of Clarke's uniform is purely subjective. John Lilyea, a retired Army sergeant who runs the blog "This Ain't Hell" which often deals with stolen valor cases, said he saw nothing wrong with Clarke's pins, and thought the kerfuffle was much ado about nothing. In an e-mail, he told us:
I don't see anything wrong with what Sheriff Clarke is wearing. None of it is military-related... The people in the Salon article were just having an emotional reaction to the sight of the Sheriff in his uniform rather than anything substantial.
Lilyea directed us to a blog post he had written on the topic (categorized under "Dumbass Bullshit") in which he characterized the controversy as nothing more than partisanship:
The whole thing is childish and it's a political attack. We've busted phonies here on both sides of the political aisle, irrespective of their politics because that’s the nature of stolen valor. I can't find any articles on Salon that take [Democratic Connecticut Senator] Dick Blumenthal to task on his fake claims that Blumenthal was a Vietnam veteran.
Anthony Anderson, a staff sergeant who runs the web site "Guardian of Valor" and has taken on the task of busting military impostors, agreed with Lilyea. He told us by e-mail:
From what we can see there are no official military badges or insignia on this man's uniform.
We see a bunch of pro-American and Law Enforcement pins. Not sure why anyone would approach this man and accuse him of Stolen Valor. Unless there is a background that we don't know of, there's nothing offensive or wrong with what he is wearing.
Opinions on whether or not Clarke's pins and uniform are inappropriate seem to be influenced by viewers' opinions on the man himself. Clarke is a lightning rod of a political figure. He began his law enforcement career with the Milwaukee Police Department in 1978, working his way up to the rank of captain, and only left the department in 2002 to take the position of Milwaukee County Sheriff.
Clarke is a staunch and outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, and frequently stumped for him during the 2016 presidential campaign. He has controversially compared the Black Lives Matter movement to terrorists, and is also the target of several lawsuits dealing with prisoner fatalities in his jail system as well as and harassment of a private citizen. The Anti-Defamation League also cautions that Clarke has ties to two groups it classifies as extremist anti-government organizations: the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), and the Oath Keepers.
Actual "stolen valor" is a serious offense — it's a federal crime to fraudulently present oneself as the recipient of authentic military medals like a silver star, a Purple Heart or a Combat Infantryman's Badge with the intent of benefiting from doing so. Although Clarke has a penchant for meticulously arranging his personal pins on his dress uniform, he never claimed to have served in the military and says the items are personal belongings, not military-issued medals or badges.
It may be a gray area for some, but the level of offense taken is in the eye of the beholder. Clarke does not misrepresent his past nor does he masquerade as a veteran of the armed forces.