BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — A Purple Heart is bestowed upon U.S. military members wounded in combat. It's a sacred honor, but an exclusive Eyewitness News investigation uncovered a Kern County veteran who is accused of betraying that honor, allegedly for money.
Ashleigh Martel allegedly lied to fellow veterans, claiming she was awarded a Purple Heart when she wasn't.
"Friendly, nice, good mom," a local advocate for veterans described Martel, juxtaposing her compliments of Martel against the allegations of fraud.
The 23-year-old woman spent nearly three years in the Army and just more than a year in Iraq, working as a human resource specialist in a combat zone.
"It was really overwhelming, the experience she had, and I was really overtaken, and I really believed her story," said Bakersfield native and Marine veteran Jeremy Staat, who gave up a lucrative career in professional football to serve a tour of duty in Iraq as an infantry machine gunner.
Staat met Martel at a Kern County high school during a Memorial Day celebration. She spoke in detail about her wartime experience.
"Her MRAP vehicle, which is a vehicle used in combat, was hit with an RPG, and that RPG went through her best friend and killed her instantly," said Staat, relaying the story he heard from Martel. "The RPG had landed on the MRAP and detonated, winded up taking off Ashleigh's ring finger, and shrapnel in her throat from her shoulder to her thigh."
Inspired, Staat asked Martel to join him as a speaker on behalf of his Bakersfield-based nonprofit Jeremy Staat Foundation. For five months, they spoke at schools, community groups and luncheons.
Iraq War veteran Wesley Barrientos, who lost his legs in combat, shared the mic with Martel, too. He said Martel was extremely convincing when she told people about being wounded and receiving a Purple Heart.
"Every time she tells it, tears come out. So it's very convincing," said Barrientos.
Even Kern County Purple Heart Foundation commander and Vietnam vet David Jackson was sold on Martel's story.
As recently as last month, a flier at a local luncheon named Martel as the keynote speaker and a Purple Heart recipient.
Kids even wrote letters like this one: "Dear Ashley (sic). Thank you for keeping us safe. You were brave. Very sorry for what happened with the rocket or RPG."
But, the Bakersfield-area vets said holes began to emerge in Martel's story. Something wasn't quite right. Staat said the dates in Martel's story didn't make sense.
"When she mentioned that her best friend had died a year ago from Oct. 4, 2011, knowing that the date when she was discharged was in January of '09. It just didn't add up," Staat said.
Eyewitness News obtained Martel's discharge document, or DD-214. It confirms she left the Army in April 2009 and does not list a Purple Heart among her medals. She closest match is a Combat Action Badge.
Also, a Veterans Affairs document shows "no evidence of a head injury" and "no evidence of hospitalization."
Staat said it took an emotionally draining three-hour conversation with Martel to get the truth from her.
"I had opened up my home and my family and friends," said Staat, describing the betrayal he felt.
Staat indicated that Martel wasn't remorseful for allegedly lying about the Purple Heart, although he declined to answer the question directly. "Hmm, next question," Staat said.
Monetary gain appears to be behind the alleged deceit.
Eyewitness News learned that Martel applied for and received two grants worth $6,000 from the Wounded Heroes Fund of Kern County.
"I feel betrayed," said executive director Wendy Porter. "Its hard, because all of our funding comes from private donations, and people work hard, and when they make a donation to an organization, its a sacrifice for them."
Eyewitness News attempted several times to get Martel's side of the story via phone calls and by knocking on her apartment door. All attempts were unsuccessful.
"Something happened for her to be doing this. (She needs to) be up front. She's a veteran. (Tell us) 'I made a mistake. I need to get help or whatever,'" Jackson urged Martel.
Barrientos said he's still stunned by the alleged lie. Staat said he's severed all ties with Martel through his foundation.
"I want her as a friend, as a veteran, to come clean, so we can move on with this and press forward with other things we wanted to do in our community," Staat said.
The Wounded Heroes Fund has not decided whether to pursue legal action.
Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, Martel could potentially face six months in prison if her claims are proven false.