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An Act for Valor
Student's Legislative Quest Ends with Congressional Approval
Monday, December 11, 2001
By Tom Gottlieb, Roll Call Staff
The odds are high that you’ve never heard of Pam Sterner.
A 49-year-old resident of Pueblo, Colo., she is a former ventriloquist (the original version of her partner, Otis, sits in the World Ventriloquist Museum in Kentucky) and a political science student at Colorado State University at Pueblo.
She also is the driving force behind S. 1998, the Stolen Valor Act, which cleared the House on Wednesday and now is on its way to President Bush. And what started as a term paper for a political science class became the most stringent crackdown on fraudulent use of military awards since George Washington, who in his General Orders in 1782, establishing what now is known as the Purple Heart, wrote: “Should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them, they shall be severely punished.”
In a Frank Capra-esque unfolding of events, Pam Sterner and her husband, Doug, turned a long-shot piece of legislation into reality. It took countless meetings, phone calls, faxes and even a trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby in-person, but all of that effort helped the Sterners — two self-described “ordinary people” — achieve something that very few people outside the political arena ever do.
“I think the average person, having learned what I learned [about partisan politics] at CSU, would have been dismayed and would have given up,” Pam Sterner said.
Busting the Phonies
The Stolen Valor Act, if signed into law, would impose up to six months in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000 for any false verbal, written or physical claim to an award or decoration authorized for military members. Those penalties would be doubled for infractions involving decorations specifically awarded for valor in combat, such as the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and the Medal of Honor. It is the largest piece of legislation affecting military awards since a 1918 act of Congress gave birth to the “Pyramid of Honor,” establishing the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star while promoting the Medal of Honor to the stature it currently holds.
The name for the recent bill is derived from the book “Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History,” by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley. But it wasn’t the primary inspiration behind Pam Sterner’s decision to transform her policy analysis paper into a bill. Instead, it was the visible frustration of her husband, producer of the Web site “Home of Heroes,” with impostors posing as Medal of Honor recipients.
“They kept talking about it for two or three years; they had no idea how to go about” correcting the problem, Pam Sterner said. “It was one of those cases of regular citizens throwing up their hands in frustration and saying, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something about this?’”
So Pam Sterner went to her professor and boldly claimed that she wasn’t only going to write her term paper about the issue of stolen valor; she was going to transform it into an amendment to Title 18 of the United States Code.
After a failed pitch to Rep. Bob Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) in late 2004, Pam Sterner decided to set up a meeting with newly-elected Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.) in his Pueblo office.
Salazar, a Vietnam War veteran whose father, brother and son also have served in the military, threw himself wholeheartedly into the process.
“I’m no hero; the highest medal I ever got was the Army Commendation Medal, that’s it,” Salazar said. “But this is one of the issues that really concerns me, that we really honor our veterans and keep our promises.”
Salazar said that despite the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” feel of the Sterners’ story, his primary focus was righting a wrong that deeply affects his constituency — a group that is 75,000 veterans strong.
“These are people who have given the ultimate,” Salazar said. “These medals need to mean something.”
Salazar’s staff frequently coordinated with the Sterners about ideas and, eventually, expansion beyond just the Medal of Honor to include “the distinguished-service cross, the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross, the Purple Heart and other decorations and medals awarded by the President or the Armed Forces of the United States,” according to the legislation.
However, reality eventually set in, and Pam Sterner experienced first-hand the bitter pill of partisan politics. The House bill, H.R. 3352, was hung up in the House Judiciary Committee for so long that Salazar finally got behind Sen. Kent Conrad’s (D-N.D.) sister bill in the Senate — which itself languished in the Senate Judiciary Committee for nearly a year after it was introduced in November 2005.
In the meantime, Pam Sterner continued to pound the pavement. She lodged torrents of phone calls and faxes to the offices of Congressmen representing districts in which impostors were outed by those in the know.
Doug Sterner recalled one specific instance in which a Navy Cross impostor was busted in November in Chillicothe, Mo., located in Rep. Sam Graves’ (R) 6th district. Pam called his office and, 24 hours later, got a response from Graves that he had personally asked Salazar to put his name on the bill.
“Pam has always lived by the mantra that one person can do anything,” Doug Sterner said. “The strategy she used was pretty astute for a rookie.”
Pam Sterner remembers the details of the legislation’s fateful day quite well.
She currently works part-time for the Census Bureau while earning her bachelor’s degree in political science, and she got to leave work early that day — just in time to watch the end of the proceedings.
“It was scary,” Pam Sterner said. “When they announced ‘Everyone in favor?’ I couldn’t hear anything. But then they said, ‘All opposed?’ and I couldn’t hear anything again and thought, ‘Oh, that’s good.’”
Salazar and the Sterners weren’t the only ones taking notice of Congress’ action on that day.
“I’m glad that the act has finally been passed,” said Medal of Honor Society President Gary Littrell, one of 111 living Medal of Honor recipients. “The best way I could classify it, it takes a sick person to pretend to be something that he’s not. I don’t understand it.”
Littrell, now 62, was awarded his Medal of Honor for an April 1970 skirmish in Vietnam. Now, as president of the Medal of Honor Society, he knows each of the recipients personally. Throw a name at him, he politely boasts, and he’ll tell you whether they were awarded the honor. That intimate knowledge has helped him identify many impostors over the years — “This used to be a very, very serious problem,” he said — but up until now, retired servicemen who laid false claim to such awards went unpunished.
And though Littrell said impostors are slowly becoming a thing of the past, since the last Medal of Honor was awarded to a living soldier in 1972, the legislation still is long overdue.
“We’re a day late and a dollar short in prosecuting some of the previous impostors,” Littrell said. “But if it will stop the impersonation, then it’s a well-worth bill.”
Salazar said that despite being pleased in being able to get a bill passed as a freshman in the minority, much of the credit goes to the Sterners for their persistence and dedication.
“They helped us with the main ideas and helped drafting the legislation,” Salazar said. “I think Pam Sterner deserves great recognition for this, and Doug ... as well.”
The most astounding part of this story perhaps is the fact that the Sterners are lifelong Republicans, and Salazar is a Democrat.
But it’s that partisan divide that ultimately carried the Stolen Valor Act to the finish line, according to Salazar.
“I think divided houses work so much better, because of the balance of power,” Salazar said. “That’s what most Americans want — both parties to get along and address the issues that work for middle America.”
Salazar said he currently is trying to schedule an official signing ceremony for the bill, hopefully before Members leave town for the end-of-year recess.
Doug Sterner, for one, supports such action.
“I want to see a picture hanging in the political science department of CSU with [President Bush] and the president of CSU,” he said. “Not for Pam, but for the message that it gives to other students, that this is more than school. This is where we can start making a difference.”
© 2006, by Roll Call, Inc.
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