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Bee file, 2013. A Sacramento firefighter directs crew members as they work on hot spots after the house fire on French Road, south of Florin Road, that killed Chesley Felmley, 84, and his son Dennis Porter Felmley, 64.

Military medal doubted for vet found dead in south Sacramento fire

Published: Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3B
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 - 11:52 am

By any standard, Dennis Felmley's death was a tragedy.

The 64-year-old Vietnam veteran died after suffering violent injuries and being found in a burning south Sacramento home on July 22, a fire that authorities say may have been set by a nephew who later killed himself in a Huntington Beach park.

On Wednesday, the tragedy appeared to be even greater, with Felmley's paid obituary in The Sacramento Bee listing him as a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award.

But online databases do not show Felmley as having received the award, an honor that is closely tracked by authorities and military historians nationwide.

Felmley's daughter Shannon said her father's wartime experiences and the lore of the medals he received had been passed down over the years by family members. She added that the family had difficulty getting records of his service because of the July 12, 1973, fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis that destroyed as many as 18 million official records.

Such claims or misunderstandings are common and have resulted in federal laws aimed at stopping individuals from lying about their military service.

The most recent is the Stolen Valor Act signed by President Barack Obama in June that makes it a crime to profit by lying about military honors. The law was an updated version of a earlier one signed by President George W. Bush.

A longtime friend and fellow Army veteran of Felmley's said Wednesday that he believed the claims in the obituary were simply a misunderstanding by family members and that Felmley would never have made such a claim.

"I wouldn't believe it in this case," said Ed Kalinowski, who said he enlisted in the Army in 1968 on the same day as Felmley. "I don't picture Dennis as being that kind of guy. He was a tough guy."

Kalinowski, who deals in military memorabilia and runs the Antique Trove shop on Harding Boulevard in Roseville, said he frequently sees medals that family members sell that are not supported by paperwork proving the veteran actually had earned them.

"I see that all the time," he said. "It's so common you wouldn't believe it."

In fact, phony claims of military service or medals have become commonplace among wannabe veterans, politicians and others.

The original Stolen Valor Act, which made it a crime to lie about military honors, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that lying was protected speech.

That resulted in passage of the new version, which made it a crime to profit from such claims.

But Kalinowski said he did not believe Felmley had any such intent.

"No, never, ever," Kalinowski said.

Call The Bee's Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091. Follow him on Twitter @stantonsam.

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