A Marine veteran who left active duty 30 years ago has been indicted for allegedly falsely claiming to have been injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq to collect more than $344,000 in disability benefits and apply for a Purple Heart, Justice Department officials have announced.

Paul John Herbert, 52, is accused of receiving the disability benefits from January 2010 to March 2023, a Justice Department news release says. Prosecutors say Herbert also applied for a Purple Heart in October 2018, during which he allegedly falsely claimed to have suffered traumatic brain injury and other wounds from a bomb blast in northern Iraq while deployed there in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.

“I just needed to feel important,” Herbert told the Greenfield Recorder newspaper when his false history was first publicly exposed in August 2022. “I started feeling important and feeling good about myself and I didn’t know a way to get out. I know I hurt a lot of people that trusted me and cared about me and everything else.”

Herbert had long claimed to have been the sole survivor of an IED attack on a convoy escorting Kurds in northern Iraq with both US and British Marines.

Herbert, from Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, faces charges of theft of government money and making false statements, the news release says. Herbert could face up to 10 years in prison for the theft charge and five years in prison for the false statements. The maximum sentence for both offenses also includes three years of supervised release and a fine up to $250,000 or twice gross gain or lost, whichever is greater.

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Herbert has pleaded not guilty to both charges, according to the Greenfield Recorder newspaper in Massachusetts, which first reported last year that Herbert had admitted to falsely claiming that he had been the only person to survive an improvised explosive device explosion in Northern Iraq while on a mission to protect Kurdish refugees alongside British Marines following the First Gulf War.

Task & Purpose was unable to reach Herbert on Wednesday. His attorney Tracy Duncan declined to comment.

Herbert served on active duty with the Marines as a Landing Support Specialist from December 1989 to January 1994, according to his service record, which was provided by the Marine Corps. He left the Corps as a corporal and his last duty assignment was with the 1st Transport Support Battalion, Combat Logistics Regiment 1, 1st Forces Service Support Group at Camp Pendleton, California. No information about his military awards was immediately available.

While in the military, Herbert also served as a reservist and National Guardsman with the Army, Air Force, and Navy until May 1995, said Christopher Demars, director of the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District.

Demars said he obtained Herbert’s service record through a Freedom of Information Act request in February 2022.

Although Herbert’s record showed that he had deployed to northern Iraq after the First Gulf War and Somalia, it also confirmed that Herbert had embellished his awards and rank, Demars told Task & Purpose.

Demars said that he first became aware of the holes in Herbert’s story a few years ago after inviting him to be the guest speaker at a Veterans Day event a few years ago.

While writing up Herbert’s biography for the event, Demars noticed that Herbert was wearing military awards that were not documented in his DD-214, including the Combat Action Ribbon and Bronze Star with “V” device for valor, Demars said.

Herbert also wore a Marine uniform with sergeant’s stripes, but his DD-214 said that he left the Corps as a corporal, Demars said.

After the veterans services district asked Herbert for more documentation, Herbert showed Demars “a real funky memorandum” that he claimed was his Bronze Star citation, Demars said.

“I have Bronze Star awards and so did my director at the time, so we knew it was a fake just by looking at it,” Demars said.

The Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District ultimately found that Herbert had falsely claimed that he was wounded in Iraq, according to the Greenfield Recorder. In addition to receiving disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Herbert also got free dental care; a $9,000 tax abatement from the town of Buckland; a service dog, for which the services district paid pet insurance and veterinarian bills; and he reimbursed mileage for mental health and neurological care that he does not qualify for.

Adding insult to injury, Herbert had also used a story that Demars told him about getting wounded in Afghanistan to further his own charade, Demars said.

When the two first met, Demars told Herbert that after being knocked unconscious by a suicide bomber, he felt the rotor wash and heard the engine of a helicopter as he was loaded onboard to be medically evacuated.

“I really didn’t realize that he used that story until we started our own investigation on him years later and found an article from the Hampshire Gazette, where he basically stated that he remembers the helicopters coming in to get him, and that’s exactly what happened to me, unfortunately,” Demars said.

Demars said he reached out to a friend with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, who began looking into Herbert. Ultimately the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General took over the case.

Speaking to the Greenfield Recorder in August 2022, Herbert claimed that he had thrown away the medals that he had not earned.

“I didn’t want any of that stuff,” Herbert told the newspaper. “I got mad at myself. I hated myself. I still hate myself for this. I lost a lot of really, really good friends.”

Demars said he hopes that Herbert’s alleged fabrications about his service record do not prevent other veterans from getting the help they need.

“Guys that I served with, Vietnam veterans that come in here, they’re hesitant to put in claims anyways – they feel guilty doing it,” Demars said. “So, hopefully finding about PJ [Herbert] doesn’t scare them away from actually putting in for the benefits they do deserve.”

Among veterans, stolen valor – impersonating a service member or veteran or wearing unearned military awards – is an unforgivable transgression. One recent example is Sarah Cavanaugh, who was sentenced to 70 months in prison in March after pleading guilty to wire fraud and related offenses for pretending to be a combat-wounded Marine veteran dying of cancer to defraud charities of more than $250,000.

But the veterans community is so vigilant about policing itself for imposters that actual veterans have been falsely accused of stolen valor. Michael Delfin, a Marine veteran who fought in Fallujah in 2004, was attacked in 2015 by an active-duty airman, who accused Delfin of lying about serving in the Marine Corps.

The threat of being accused of stolen valor can be intimidating for veterans suffering from “invisible wounds” such as traumatic brain injury.

So far, cases of alleged stolen valor have not created a chilling effect that have stopped veterans from getting help, said Terrence Hayes, press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We have not seen any reluctance among Veterans to apply for benefits – in fact, more Veterans are applying for the benefits they deserve than ever before,” Hayes told Task & Purpose. “This year alone, Veterans have filed more than 2.2 million benefits claims, which is an all-time record and 41.3% more than last year. We at VA encourage all Veterans to apply for their earned benefits today.”

UPDATE: 09/11/2023; this story was updated with information about Paul John Herbert’s service in the Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, and Navy.

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