FBI investigates military record
By Turner Walston
Published in News on January 15, 2006 2:10 AM
FBI agents in Raleigh are reviewing allegations that a Wayne County veteran faked portions of his military record, including claiming medals for valor in combat that he might not have earned.
Under investigation are medals Preston Garris, 60, claims to have received while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, including the Silver Star, the Marine Corps' third-highest medal for valor.
Also under question is Garris' claim that he retired as an officer with the Corps. Two discharge documents exist -- one that lists Garris' rank as first lieutenant, and another that lists him as a staff sergeant.
One of the documents also states that Garris received a Purple Heart with one Gold Star, while the other denotes receipt of a Purple Heart.
Both documents carry Garris' signature.
Not under question is Garris' Purple Heart, which he received after losing part of his leg during his service in Vietnam.
If found to be true, the falsification charges would be prosecuted as violations of statutes of the United States Code, federal offenses.
Title 18, Section 498 of the Code prohibits the alteration or forgery of military discharge documents. Section 704 prohibits the unauthorized wearing of medals that were not earned. Both charges carry fines or terms of imprisonment from six months to a year.
Raleigh FBI agents have already made a preliminary investigation of the alleged discrepancies and are currently examining records of Garris' service to determine if charges will be filed.
"Obviously it appears as though there could be a problem," said Greg Baker, supervisory agent for the FBI's criminal divisions in Raleigh and Greenville. "If there is, we'll look into prosecution."
The investigation would be turned over to the U.S. Attorney's office for prosecution if the FBI felt the claims of falsification are determined to be true, Baker said.
Garris was appointed by Gov. Mike Easley to the North Carolina Veterans Affairs Commission in July.
In late October, he resigned after his record was called into question, said Charlie Smith, assistant secretary of the North Carolina Division of Veterans Affairs.
"He wasn't necessarily asked to resign, but I did have some counsel with him about the issues and about (how) his work on the commission might suffer, and the commission might suffer," Smith said. "He said before he would embarrass the commission or the governor, he would resign."
Smith said the allegations against Garris surprised him.
"I've known (Garris) for about 30 years," he said. "I had no reason to doubt what he said that he had achieved."
Smith said he doesn't know what motivation Garris would have had for falsifying his record.
"I have no idea, and I've had that conversation with several people about what has he got to gain from this," he said. "I was skeptical that he would do anything like this."
Garris has served as state commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and was a national council member for the group.
In November, he ran for the position of junior vice commander-in-chief of the Southern Conference of Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. He was defeated.
In a biography posted on a VFW Web site during the campaign, Garris is reported as having won the Silver Star, Combat Action Ribbon and two Purple Hearts.
Bill Carr, commander of the Eastern North Carolina Military Order of the Purple Heart, said he became suspicious of Garris' claims while talking with him about his Marine Corps service.
Carr is also a Marine Corps veteran.
"He said he was an officer, he got commissioned," Carr said. "It didn't add up when he told me that. It was on my mind. I know the regulations for being an officer in the Marine Corps back then, and it just didn't add up."
Carr also questioned Garris' claim that he earned a Silver Star after Garris was recognized as a Silver Star recipient by the North Carolina Legislature in April.
Mike Burris, past state commander of the North Carolina VFW, said if the allegations are true, Garris' offense is an insult to anyone who actually earned the medals he claims.
"It's a slap in the face of every veteran and to all those that wear the uniform, but even more tragically, to those that have earned the Silver Star and died for it," Burris said.
Burris said he, too, looked into Garris' service record and found discrepancies.
Multiple attempts to reach Garris for comment on the charges or the discrepancies in his record were unsuccessful.
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