Former Marine from Shelburne Falls pleads not guilty to benefits theft, making false statements

Buckland resident Paul John “PJ” Herbert, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of tours in Iraq and Somalia, speaks during Greenfield’s Veterans Day services in 2019. Herbert, 52, faces one count of theft of government money and one count of making false statements

Buckland resident Paul John “PJ” Herbert, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of tours in Iraq and Somalia, speaks during Greenfield’s Veterans Day services in 2019. Herbert, 52, faces one count of theft of government money and one count of making false statements STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 09-01-2023 8:00 PM

SPRINGFIELD — A former U.S. Marine was arrested Friday morning and released on conditions after pleading not guilty in a Springfield federal court to charges related to allegedly stealing benefit payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs and submitting a false Purple Heart application to the Marine Corps through his congressional representative.

Paul John “PJ” Herbert, 52, of Shelburne Falls, faces one count of theft of government money and one count of making false statements, charges that could total up to 15 years in prison if he is found guilty.

“Mr. Herbert’s alleged conduct is an affront to every veteran who has sacrificed to earn the honor of a Purple Heart and who is deserving of disability benefits. According to the indictment, he not only stole tens of thousands of dollars in disability benefits that are supposed to be used to help veterans in need, but he also falsely claimed to have suffered a traumatic brain injury during his deployment in an effort to receive a Purple Heart he didn’t deserve,” U.S. Attorney Joshua S Levy said in a statement. “Stealing from our country’s veterans or claiming valor where there is none is an insult to the honorable service members who sacrifice for our safety.”

The Greenfield Recorder published an article in August 2022 in which Herbert admitted to embellishing his military service and receiving medals and money he had not earned.

“I just needed to feel important. I started feeling important and feeling good about myself and I didn’t know a way to get out,” Herbert said at the time. “I know I hurt a lot of people that trusted me and cared about me and everything else.”

When contacted by the Recorder for comment on Friday, Herbert immediately hung up the phone.

Investigations by the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District found that Herbert had lied about certain heroic actions during deployments to northern Iraq and Somalia in the 1990s. According to information the veterans’ services district received through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Herbert was in active service from Dec. 11, 1989, to Dec. 10, 1993, and in the Reserves from Dec. 11, 1993, to May 1, 1995.

Christopher Demars, then-deputy director of the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District, said he and his colleagues started becoming suspicious of Herbert’s claims a few years ago when Herbert spoke at a local veterans event and talked about his experiences. Demars, now the director of the veterans’ services district, said Herbert mentioned a lot of information that was not documented in his DD214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty). Herbert had claimed to be the only survivor of an improvised explosive device (IED) attack while with a group of British Royal Marines during Operation Provide Comfort, a mission to defend Kurdish refugees fleeing northern Iraq in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. But Herbert told the Recorder in August 2022 that there was no IED explosion and no Royal Marines were killed. This constitutes stolen valor, the act of lying about military service.

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“We’re just happy that the [Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General] followed through and that he’s going to be held accountable for his actions,” Demars said on Friday. “It helps discourage people from trying to steal from the government.”

According to the veterans’ services district, Herbert received hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits from the VA and also received free dental care, $9,000 in tax abatements from Buckland over nine years and $19,000 from the state’s annuity for veterans who are 100% disabled. Herbert reportedly also received reimbursed mileage to free mental health and neurological appointments that district officials claim he does not qualify for. According to the federal grand jury indictment, Herbert stole more than $344,000 in veterans disability benefits between Jan. 1, 2010 to March 11, 2023.

The veterans’ services district also claimed the VA had been paying the pet insurance and veterinarian bills for the service dog that Herbert got for free. His lodging and food were paid for when he went to Long Island to train with the canine.

“I don’t know how to explain it to those guys. And I feel horrible about it,” Herbert said a year ago. “I have a lot of good in my heart.”

Last year, Herbert maintained that he suffered a legitimate traumatic brain injury when a landing craft utility boat hit a sandbar during Operation Leatherneck Ranger at Camp Pendleton in California. However, there is no medical evidence to back it up and Herbert never filed any such claim.

According to the veterans’ services district, Herbert fraudulently wore at least 14 military awards (including that Bronze Star with Valor and a Combat Action Ribbon) on his uniform. Asked about these medals a year ago, Herbert said he locked away the ones he legitimately earned and threw away those he received fraudulently.

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

Herbert reportedly applied for a Purple Heart, but was denied by the U.S. Department of Defense.

“Individuals who steal veterans’ disability benefits and falsely represent themselves as decorated veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces degrade the service of the men and women who selflessly serve our country,” Patrick J. Hegarty, special agent in charge of the Northeast Field Office of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Criminal Investigative Service, the law enforcement component of the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, said in a statement on Friday. “Today’s charges demonstrate our commitment to work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General and the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of stolen military benefits.”

The theft of government money charges provide for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater. The charge of making a false statement provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater. Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon United States sentencing guidelines and statutes, which govern the determination of a sentence in a criminal case.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or
413-930-4120.