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Phony Purple Heart Recipient Gets Jail Time for Cheating Veteran Groups Out of $250,000

A Rhode Island woman admitted to pretending.

A Rhode Island woman who admitted to pretending to be a Purple Heart recipient and decorated U.S. Marine has been sentenced to six years in prison.  In court, prosecutors laid out the case against Susan Cavanaugh: She claimed she had received the Purple Heart after being injured in Iraq, even though she had never served in the military. She also claimed she was suffering from cancer, a ruse that netted her hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable donations and veterans' benefits, they said. Read on to find out more, including the full extent of her fraud that an investigator said was "an insult to every veteran." 

Used Stolen Identities of Real Veterans


According to the Justice Department, Cavanaugh was actually a social worker at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center and used her position "to gain access to documents, personal information, and medical records belonging to a Marine and a Navy veteran who was battling cancer."  She used those stolen identities to obtain veterans benefits, the DOJ said. The Defense Department said there was no record of Cavanaugh serving in any branch of the U.S. military.

Prosecutors Decry "Brazen Scheme"


Prosecutors said Cavanaugh engaged in "near-daily criminal conduct over a period of five years," scamming "veterans, veterans' organizations, veterans' charities, friends, and co-workers in a "methodical and calculated manner.  She allegedly stole more than $250,000 from veterans organizations and charities in what prosecutors called a "brazen scheme."

"Her Actions Are An Insult to Every Veteran"


"Sarah Cavanagh feigned having cancer, and falsely claimed valor where there was none, to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits and charitable donations. Her actions are an insult to every veteran who has served our country, and today she learned her fate for her criminal conduct," said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division.  "Make no mistake, the FBI and our law enforcement partners are committed to seeking justice for anyone who lies about serving our country and illegally takes money from federal programs that help veterans who rightfully deserve it," he said.

Purchased Medals on the Internet


Before her scam was discovered, Cavanaugh had served as commander of a Rhode Island  VFW lodge for more than a year. She resigned that position in January 2022. Prosecutors said she gave public speeches while dressed in full U.S. Marine uniform, outfitted with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star that she purchased on the internet.  She had also used her false military experience to secure a spot in an arts program at the University of Southern California, prosecutors said. In a letter to the court, a U.S. military veteran criticized Cavanaugh for taking "a spot [in the program] from another veteran who could have participated in the program and, ultimately, may not have committed suicide."

"It's Hurtful" 

Marine Corps Association/Facebook

Last year, Tom Schueman, president of Patrol Base Abbate, told WPRI that when he met Cavanaugh, he believed her story at first. "She's telling me about how she went to the oncologist and the oncologist did a scan of her lungs and it was the metallic particles from her IED blasts and burn pits that gave her the lung cancer," he said.  Then Schueman started looking for Cavanaugh's military paperwork, and he immediately discovered she was a fake. "The entire principal of our organization is to bring people together and connect them and to build that trust between veterans," Schueman said. "When that's exploited … it's hurtful."

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