3 years in prison for soldier who lied way to Purple Heart

Darryl Lee Wright
FILE--In this Aug. 25, 2016, file photo, former National Guard soldier Darryl Lee Wright leaves a courtroom at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Wash. Prosecutors are seeking a five-year prison sentence Thursday, June 1, 2017, for Wright, who lied his way to a Purple Heart and hundreds of thousands of dollars in government benefits. (AP Photo/Gene Johnson, file)

SEATTLE (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a former soldier who lied his way to a Purple Heart to three years in prison and ordered him to repay nearly $650,000 in stolen government benefits.

Darryl Wright, 48, a former Idaho National Guardsman, feigned injuries from an explosion in Iraq in 2005 and doctored statements from fellow soldiers to obtain two awards, a Combat Action Badge and a Purple Heart, which is reserved for those wounded in action.

The Army has since revoked the awards, though Wright still has the medals.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud last year. Prosecutors were seeking a prison term of five years, and they wanted the judge to order Wright to return the medals and a Purple Heart license plate.

Settle declined to go that far, but he did order Wright to serve three years, followed by three years of supervised release, and to repay $646,300 in benefits.

Wright’s attorney, Christopher Black, called it “the right sentence.”

“He acknowledged responsibility for the bad decisions that he’s made and apologized for them,” Black said.

He described the defendant as a “complicated man” with psychological issues, but said he has been doing well in therapy.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Reese Jennings and Gregory Gruber said Wright parlayed the medals he received to obtain “every possible benefit that might be available to a wounded veteran,” including a wide range of disability benefits and the forgiveness of more than $40,000 in student loans. Prosecutors said he defrauded 16 state, federal, local and private agencies, programs and organizations.

“This guy was a master at weaponizing his phony status as a Purple Heart Veteran,” Jennings said.

In applications for benefits, Wright claimed to be so severely disabled that he could only focus his attention for five to 10 seconds, and he said he needed a live-in caregiver. In reality, he served as chairman of the planning commission in Snoqualmie, a city east of Seattle where he lives; coached high school basketball; and had held a full-time federal government job in Seattle.

His fraud came to light because a co-worker in the U.S. Commerce Department discovered in 2009 that he had fabricated National Guard orders in an effort to be paid for a week of skipped work.

Wright accused the co-worker, Cristina Jackson, of violating his privacy, and the department initially tried to punish her instead of him. Eventually, she reported what was going on to the department’s inspector general, whose findings against Wright eventually made their way to federal prosecutors.

“I can finally say it’s over,” Jackson said after the sentencing Thursday. “I still think the judge was way too lenient and gave him more credit than he deserved, but for me it was enough that it was all memorialized in court.”

Wright claimed to have been injured in a rocket attack in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Aug. 30, 2005. Then a first lieutenant with the Idaho National Guard, he was near a battalion headquarters building when two rockets landed about 100 yards away. Initial reports filed by him and by others in his unit referenced no casualties.

“As far as anyone on our team getting hurt, no, that didn’t happen,” then-Capt. Mark Moeckli told The Associated Press last year.

But in 2010, Wright successfully applied for a Purple Heart. In his paperwork, he claimed he “was violently thrown and knocked unconscious from the percussion of the rockets’ impact.”

Wright also claimed Social Security disability benefits, insisting he was frequently bedridden. The VA paid his sister to be his live-in caregiver, though investigators said she performed no such service. By May 2013, the siblings were bringing in benefits totaling $10,000 a month, prosecutors said. The sister later pleaded guilty to related charges.

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This story has been corrected to show the year of the feigned injuries was 2005, not 2006.