Stolen valor case resolved
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 7, 2007 1:45 PM
A younger Preston Garris came back home to Wayne County a hero -- donning the Purple Heart he received for losing part of his leg in Vietnam.
But more than 30 years later, the 62-year-old is under fire after admitting to federal officials that he lied about his military record.
Garris never earned the Silver Star -- but that did not stop him from accepting recognition from the North Carolina General Assembly for being awarded the Marine Corps' third highest medal for valor.
The LaGrange native was never commissioned -- yet he has carried a retired first lieutenant military identification card for years and used it to join the Wayne County chapter of the Military Officers Association of America.
Local veterans like Bill Carr, Mike Burris and Bob Stone used to call Garris a comrade.
Now, the three call him "a disgrace", at the tail end of an investigation that started years ago and has culminated in a pre-trial diversion that will keep Garris out of the courts.
Officials inside the U.S. District Attorney's Office confirmed Garris forged his DD214 -- military discharge papers issued by the Department of Defense upon a service member's retirement, separation or discharge from active duty.
He has also allegedly drafted and mailed a letter, currently en route to the state Veterans of Foreign Wars office, officials said -- an acknowledgment, they say, of wrongdoing.
Carr, a retired Marine officer and commander of the local Order of the Purple Heart chapter, said he "just can't understand" why someone would "steal honor and courage."
But particularly Garris, a man Carr said already had a Purple Heart and stories to spare.
"It disgraces anybody who has ever worn the uniform," Carr said. "Especially those who received decorations posthumously."
But it is not just a "disgrace."
Stealing valor is a felony.
Long before FBI agents in Raleigh began investigating the claim that Garris was not the military man he claimed to be, the veteran was embraced by Carr, Burris and Stone as a comrade in arms.
But when he was recognized by the General Assembly for being awarded the Silver Star, the three became suspicious.
"He just didn't carry himself like a man who had been through the kind of thing that warrants a Silver Star," Carr said. "I know. One of my best friends had two of them."
Then, discrepancies were found between a pair of DD214s, both carrying Garris' signature.
One of them, the one officials now say is the real discharge, lists Garris as a staff sergeant who was awarded the Purple Heart.
The other, which Carr and Burris say they watched Garris hand out at veterans' conferences and other events, lists him as a first lieutenant.
But it was not just the upgrade in rank that troubled those who had seen both.
A Silver Star and a Gold Star on his Purple Heart were included on the "doctored" papers, also -- decorations Carr said got Garris appointed to the North Carolina Veterans Affairs Commission in July 2006 by Gov. Mike Easley.
"That's when (Carr) started calling for his resignation," Burris said. "He knew he was a phony."
The men took their findings to the FBI where agents, including Greg Baker, began to look into the claim that Garris was in violation of Title 18, Section 498 and Section 704 of the United States Code.
In January 2006, Baker said "obviously, it appears as though there could be a problem."
Today, officials confirmed that fear.
But Garris will not face trial.
Instead, he must serve probation and send a letter to the VFW that "sets the record straight."
Stone could tell you something about the Silver Star.
The retired major earned one walking into a fire fight in Vietnam to save several wounded comrades from certain death.
Knowing there are people out their "stealing valor" hurts, he said.
"I have the utmost disdain for (Garris) and for anyone else who parades themselves off as something they are not," Stone said. "I just loathe them. I have been there. I have seen our soldiers in action, and I have seen the great sacrifices they made. And then to have (him) back here saying that he was there and that he won a Silver Star for action that he undertook, it's pathetic."
But for him, the hurt comes in knowing that "so many" of his best friends never made it home from the jungle -- and that Garris was claiming a medal those men should have worn safely back home.
"You would be surprised at what some of us go through, I being one of them," Carr said. "I have such guilt, and have for years, that I am here and they are not. And then you have a guy walking around out there like Preston Garris."
Garris declined comment referring all questions to his attorney, Daniel Boyce.
Boyce later returned a call to The News-Argus, saying "I can tell you that any matters related to Mr. Garris have been resolved and he does not expect any charges to be filed against him."
But for a group of Wayne County veterans, nothing Garris could say seems to matter anymore.
"Civilians, they don't always understand," Carr said. "You have to be in combat to really see. You don't like someone impersonating someone else like that. Not when you have watched your best friend die a hero like he's claimed to be."
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