Stolen valour

A Burnaby RCMP officer makes it his mission to find out the truth behind one man’s tales of wartime bravery.

As Canadians across the country get ready to remember those who lost their lives fighting for our freedom, one Burnaby Mountie is resting easier knowing he stopped a man from fraudulently portraying himself as a war hero.

Cpl. Gregor Aitken has been with the RCMP since the late ‘90s but before he donned his Red Serge, he served as a military police officer from 1993 to 1997. His service is something he takes pride in, a pride he displays when wearing his service medals. He is active with the Royal Canadian Legion and often attends veterans’ events.

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So when Aitken met a veteran with 14 service medals, he was awed – and suspicious.

“I’d seen this fellow around and I’d always thought that was a pretty impressive amount of medals,” he told the NOW.

This year, he was at a Legion’s veteran luncheon and to his surprise he was seated next to the mysterious war hero. As the event went on and the former soldiers, which included a Second World War veteran and a Korean War veteran, at the table shared their stories, Aitken took the opportunity to ask the mystery vet about his service history.

“I’d always been slightly suspicious of this fellow just because it was such an unbelievable number of medals,” he said. “I started talking to him and he started telling me these pretty incredible stories.”

Among the medals the veteran was wearing was a Canadian Medal of Bravery, which is an extremely prestigious medal. When Aitken asked how he earned the medal, the veteran told him he received it for his service in the battle of Medak Pocket in Croatia.

“My old platoon sergeant was actually wounded in the former Yugoslavia and he was at Medak, and I know for a fact no medals of bravery were given out, so this guy then tells me a story, and I know it’s garbage,” Aitken said.

Another indicator was the Canadian Forces Decoration medal the veteran was wearing. The medal is given to members of the Canadian Armed Forces for longstanding service. It’s given after 12 years of service and then a gold bar is given for every 10 years after that – the veteran had two gold bars, amounting to 32 years of service. He also had another medal for 20 years of service with a police force.

“That’s like 52 years in the service, so unless he joined the army when he was eight as a drummer boy, then the math isn’t adding up,” Aitken said.

The evidence quickly began supporting Aitken’s suspicions, that this veteran was portraying himself as a war hero when that was not, in fact, the case.

For about a month, Aitken conducted his own investigation into the veteran’s background. He searched him using Canada’s Access to Information and Privacy Act, he contacted Department of National Defence and the Royal Canadian Dragoons, and put in a request for the veteran’s service record through Archives Canada.

“(Archives) said he was a reservist in the late ‘60s and he’d gone and done a tour in Egypt. One tour and then that was it and he was released from the military,” Aitken said.

The final piece of the puzzle was a medal the veteran was wearing that was given to British soldiers who fought in the first Gulf War.

“When I asked him about that at the dinner he said, ‘Oh, I was attached as a Canadian soldier to the British army when they went into Iraq,’” he said.

Aitken contacted the British military to confirm the veteran’s story, but once again it didn’t check out.

“I guess this was really a case of the guy running into the wrong person because not only was I a former military policeman, not only am I a current policeman, but one of my best friends is an officer in a British tank regiment,” he said.

Once Aitken had enough evidence, he drafted up a report recommending charges against the veteran (it’s a criminal offence to wear medals that one is not entitled to).

But before charging him, Aitken arranged a restorative justice meeting with the veteran, the Legion, the United Nations Peacekeeping Association, a veterans assistance group and himself.

Aitken gave him a choice between a court case or a restorative justice session. The veteran chose the restorative justice route, which requires the individual to admit wrongdoing and apologize to the wronged parties, and after trying to convince the group the whole thing was a clerical error and that he had in fact earned all the medals he was wearing, he finally admitted this wasn’t so.

Aitken said the veteran told the group he was wearing the medals “because he wanted to draw attention to all the bravery of all the Canadians out there.”

With the matter closed, the medals were sent to Ottawa to be destroyed and even though Aitken got what he wanted, he said the experience left him feeling rewarded and disappointed at the same time.

“This is pretty much the penultimate act of disrespect,” he said.

Each medal symbolizes the service and sacrifice an individual has made for his country, Aitken said. To portray yourself as a bigger hero than you are can make other veterans, who did in fact earn the medals they wear, feel as though they weren't a good enough soldier, he added.

"You can see the disappointment in (the veterans') faces and the anger, so that kind of hurt, but at the same time it's rewarding, knowing this guy is not out there pretending to be something that he's not and flaunting awards he hasn't earned," he said.

Come Nov. 11, Aitken, who hasn't missed a Remembrance Day ceremony in 21 years, said he won't be thinking about his own service but rather the service of the men and women who served before and who are still serving today.

"I've done (the ceremony) in my parka and my fur hat when it's -40 and I've done it in Afghanistan when it was +40," he said. "For me, I think it's important that we get out there and get the recognition out there for these guys … all these Canadians citizens, men and women that have done so much for our country."

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