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The Pueblo Chieftain Online
August 4, 2002
A patriot's patriot: Doug Sterner is driven by an intense passion for the United States. Says his friend, John Verna, "Every time we raise the flag, I see a piece of Doug."
Chieftain Photos/Bryan Kelsen
By SCOTT SMITH
The Pueblo Chieftain
To the left of the keyboard is a Pepsi can. To the right of the mouse pad, a jumbo coffee mug.
"Fuel," the webmaster says.
Most days, he alternates the two, ingesting prodigious amounts of caffeine as he cranks out encyclopedic amounts of information for his pride and joy, a sprawling Web site dedicated to American history, military tales and anything and everything to do with the Medal of Honor. His average daily consumption: a dozen Pepsis and four pots of black coffee.
"I'll be dead for two weeks before my body knows it," he says with a semiguilty laugh.
Funny thing is, if ever there was someone who didn't need an extra buzz, it's Doug Sterner. Because the man is energized from within, driven by passion, patriotism and a sincere desire to change the world. He's produced the equivalent of 50,000 pages of text in the past four years, established a Web site - www.HomeOfHeroes.com - that gets more than 10 million hits a month, molded himself into the world's foremost expert on the Medal of Honor and helped his community engender pride in its home-grown heroes.
More important to Sterner, he is providing accessible information to the nation's youth - students who might visit the Home of Heroes site and learn something about some of the millions of veterans who have served the United States in the name of freedom. Sterner hopes some of those kids might be inspired to action, if not greatness, after reading one of his legions of stories about real-life heroes.
"My generation has failed our young people," says Sterner, a wiry Vietnam vet who radiates positive intensity. "There's nothing wrong with kids today, and we're seeing that in Afghanistan, where our young men and women are showing they're every bit as good as their dads and grandfathers were in Vietnam, Korea, and World War II and beyond. There's not a darn thing wrong with kids today - they've got the same American heart. The problem is our generation dropped out, got cynical and didn't give them something to believe in. Maybe that's what drives me - I feel we need to give them something to hold onto.
"Patriotism is not something you just feel on the Fourth of July or when something bad happens; it's something you feel because you know you're privileged to live where you do. You're proud to be an American."
There's no doubting Sterner's affinity for the red, white and blue. When he was a high school student in Montana in the 1960s, he believed strongly in U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia - and he wasn't afraid to say so. When his history class was given an assignment to write two pages pro and two pages con on the Vietnam issue, Sterner turned in two pages con and 48 pages pro.
"The teacher in that class was anti-Vietnam War, but he gave me 200 out of a possible 50 points," Sterner says. "And I remember what he wrote on my paper: 'Doug, I disagree with your premise on this, but herein lies the spirit of American greatness. Don't ever lose what you've got.'" He hasn't.
He's always been a patriot, even when it wasn't cool. But Sterner's accomplishments have not come without sacrifices. He is admittedly obsessed with his self-generated sense of duty. He rarely sleeps more than two or three hours a night, only grudgingly stops to eat an occasional meal and candidly wonders if he's failed his family (wife Pam and four children, ages 12 to 27) because of his all-consuming work on the Web site and the Medal of Honor.
Sterner usually can be found seated in front of his home computer, which is perched on a desk in a den crammed to the rafters with letters of commendation (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Colin Powell, etc.), files with "atta-boy" newspaper clippings, stacks of recently completed e-books (the one on the Spanish-American War is 163 pages long and filled with maps, color photos, cultural history and battle-by-battle chronology) and assorted historical research material.
He's a one-man show when it comes to cyberspace - remarkable given the fact that, until he took classes at Pueblo Community College in 1998, he didn't have the slightest clue how to log on to a computer, let alone how to produce a sophisticated Web page. He researches. He interviews. He creates graphics and ferrets out photos. He answers questions from all corners of the world regarding the Medal of Honor. He makes downloadable coloring books. But most of all, he writes.
"This is where my focus is," says Sterner, 52, arms outstretched and fingers pointing toward the screen of his trusty Compaq. "My mind is always going. I may have already written 50,000 pages, but I've got material for another 500,000 - I just don't have time to write them. I've got ideas in the back of my mind I couldn't fulfill if I lived to be a thousand.
Sterner knows more about the Medal of Honor than almost anyone. Even the FBI uses him to help determine the veracity of medals and alleged medal recipients.
Focused on the Medal
In Sterner's case, what you see is not what you get. He's an unassuming, relatively nondescript fellow - wouldn't stand out in a crowd unless someone asked a Medal of Honor question. He's still a little rough around the edges, can give the appearance of being brusque and knows that his determined demeanor puts off some people, especially those who don't know him.
Indeed, when the Sterners came to town in the early '90s and began their crusade to put Pueblo and its heroes (the city was home to four living Medal of Honor recipients at the time) on the map, they were greeted with lukewarm reactions (at best) from community leaders.
"The biggest problem people have when they first meet me is they don't believe I'm for real," he says. "I'm kind of a different character - my friends are polite and call me eccentric. But I think most people tend to look at me and say, 'What's his angle?' - because they've got this cynical idea that any time someone starts doing something they must have a personal motivation. It takes a while for people to get to know me and realize that I really don't have an agenda.
Well, that's not entirely true. Sterner does have an agenda - to educate and inform the public about the Medal of Honor and American/military history - but it's not self-serving. He says he's never made any money from amassing and dispersing information - "and never will." Everything on his Web site is fair game - and everyone from CNN and The New York Times to Reader's Digest and the FBI has used Sterner's imposing resource materials and knowledge.
And as far as receiving credit for his hard work, that doesn't really matter to Sterner. It's not about Doug. It's about America.
"Without question, he is the expert on Medal of Honor recipients," says Colorado Springs resident Peter Lemon, himself a Medal of Honor winner. "There isn't anything he doesn't know."
"How influential is that site? I've used it for presentations, and so have mayors, governors, congressmen, senators, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all branches of the military....It has a huge, huge impact throughout the world."
Lemon says he considered Sterner "an average guy with a huge dream" when he first met him a decade ago. Sterner was trying to stir up interest in Pueblo for the city to host a national Medal of Honor convention, build a related museum and adopt the "Home Of Heroes" motto.
"After meeting him, I felt that whatever he set out to do, he would accomplish," Lemon says. "And in the 10 years I've known him, that's been the case. He won't let anybody stand in the way of something he feels is good for the community and good for the nation."
As it turned out, Pueblo hosted the national Medal of Honor convention in 2000, there are statues and an inside display honoring the Medal winners at the convention center and a sign along Interstate 25 proclaims the city as "The Home of Heroes." The museum remains a dream of Sterner's - he had miniature models (the building is shaped like the Medal of Honor), a floor plan and a virtual tour on the Web site - but he says he's pretty much resigned to the fact that it probably will never happen in Pueblo, due to a lack of interest/funds.
John Verna, former city councilman and one of the convention organizers, says Sterner deserves all the credit for Pueblo being known for its heroes.
"He's an amazing guy. He's knowledgeable and he's sincere," Verna says. "Doug's just Doug. You could give this guy a million dollars and Doug's not going to change. He'll live the way he wants to live. He's just Doug - he's an American."
Lemon, who says he talks to Sterner at least once a week, wishes Pueblo appreciated its expert-in-residence a little more.
"He puts all his time and all his money into this (Web site) project," Lemon says. "I wish somebody in the Pueblo community would recognize what he's done and what the site does for the city and would come forth and say they're willing to support the project on behalf of the community and support Doug Sterner.
"What I admire most about him is his passion. What I respect the most is his patriotism. What I enjoy most is his down-to-earth friendship."
Pam and Doug Sterner have made a positive impact on Pueblo since moving here 12 years ago.
Sterner's path to Pueblo was long, winding and utterly unpredictable.
He says he grew up as a frustrated member of a very talented, musically inclined family in Montana. The problem: His vocal cords were stretched as the result of a throat tumor, and until his voice changed at age 14, he was unable to sing with the rest of the clan. In fact, he had to tilt his head upward - eyes, nose and mouth pointed toward the heavens - just to speak.
"I literally cried myself to sleep because I was the only untalented member of the family," says Sterner. "Then one night, I was lying in bed and I prayed for God to give me one talent. I didn't care how good it was, or what it was, I just wanted something to do."
Sterner says his prayer was answered on multiple levels. He took up ventriloquism, then writing, then guitar. He wrote his first novel at age 15 - eerily, title "The Hero," about two soldiers who received the Medal of Honor in World War II. by his early 20s, he'd composed 200 gospel songs and recorded two albums (friends describe his singing voice today as romantic, big and unbelievable).
He considered going to the seminary and becoming a minister, but after a brief stint in a local community college, he realized that he knew exactly where he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. And it was on to Vietnam.
Sterner enlisted in the Army in 1969, completed a six-month noncommissioned officers' candidate course - "They called us shake-and-bake sergeants" - and headed overseas.
He completed two tours of duty as a combat engineers (sweeping mines, destroying bunkers, building roads, etc.), earned two Bronze Star medals and returned to Montana with a new perspective - the kind shaped by proximity to combat. Sterner still strongly believes the the U.S. won the war in Vietnam - and he points to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of communism as proof.
"The Vietnam War was tied directly to the Cold War, which the United States won," he says.
He also says that the experience irrevocably altered his outlook on life.
"I will never, never, no matter what happens, feel sorry for myself," he says. "I've seen people with nothing, people who have suffered great tragedy, smile and find joy. When you see what some of those (Vietnamese) people have gone through, I don't think there's anything that could make me feel sorry for myself."
Sterner chronicles the most intense of his Vietnam experiences in "Jaime's Story," his first Web-page tale. The story, based on Sterner's visceral writings in the immediate aftermath of the death of his friend, Jaime Pacheco-Vejar, is filled with emotion and concludes with Sterner's 1998 reunion with Jaime's son, Michael Pacheco, who was 18 months old at the time of his father's death.
"To me, (the reunion) was a defining moment in my life," Sterner says.
Sterner was one of the driving forces for the city of Pueblo to recognize its Medal of Honor recipients, shown here in statue form at the convention center.
On the Road
When Sterner returned from Vietnam, he worked in the Montana state prison system for three years - and met Pam at a church function. They fell in love, married and built an enduring relationship based on what they had in common: ventriloquism, faith and not being afraid to take a chance.
The Sterners devoted a decade of their lives to traveling around the West and Midwest as Christian educators/entertainers. Billed as The SHARE Family, they performed puppet shows, major illusions and livestock magic (doves, rabbits and skunks - all of which lived in the refurbished school bus that doubled as the Sterner's home).
It was truly a family affair. Their oldest daughter was sawed in half every night; their toddler son worked as a clown; and Doug wowed the crowds by wriggling out of his strait jacket while being suspended upside down from a crane. Doug and Pam wrote two books on Christian magic and continued adding to the family, but after about 10 years on the road, they decided to settle down.
They managed low-income apartment complexes, first in Denver and then in Pueblo, beginning in 1990. Pam initially wasn't thrilled about moving away from the big city, but like her husband says, "Pueblo really grows on you."
The Sterners reached out to the community in a big way. Pam organized Family Funshine Day in 1992, a Fourth of July celebration that offered kids free admission to the City Park rides and Pueblo Zoo. the event - which featured 10,000 free helium balloons and 3,000 10-cent hot dogs - was a success, but Doug felt that it lacked patriotic emphasis and vowed to add some star-spangled pizazz the next time around.
After that first celebration, Sterner read a newspaper story about Jerry Murphy, one of Pueblo's Medal of Honor recipients. He called Murphy at his New Mexico home and asked him if he'd attend a Fourth of July bash in Pueblo. Murphy said yes.
"He also said, 'Have you thought about inviting the other three?'" Sterner says. "And I said, 'Huh?' That's when I found out that Pueblo had not one, but four living Medal of Honor recipients. I thought that was incredible and wondered why Pueblo had never built on this. Of course, it was because nobody knew it."
Sterner has been working hard to remedy that ever since. And as he's totally immersed himself in Medal of Honor self-education, he's gained even more respect for the country's veterans, if that's possible.
"As a private citizen, I think we owe everything we have to our veterans," he says. "But as a veteran, I don't think anybody owes me a darn thing. I just did my duty. It was an obligation to myself."
Looking to the future
Pam Sterner, only half-jokingly, says of her husband, "All we ever see is the back of his head for a couple of hours."
She knows he's incapable of ever really relaxing, but she understands that her husband's work habit and relentless enthusiasm are unlikely to diminish.
"After 27 years, I've learned that's just him. He's not going to change," she says.
"Whatever he's doing, his motive is really that he can change the world. When he was in the evangelistic field, he was the same way. Now, I think he view (the Web site) as a new ministry. And if he reaches a few people and gives them self-confidence and the idea they can go out and do something, then he has accomplished what he wants."
Sterner seems uncomfortable being the focus of attention, though. He deflects the credit for the Medal of Honor projects to Pam and others, and also says his wife was the catalyst for his learning computer skills.
"She nagged me to go back to school - I thought I was too old," he says.
Now, Sterner teaches business technology at PCC. He also spends plenty of time in his role as chairman of the state's Board of Veterans Affairs. But there's no doubt as to what he'd be doing full-time if he had his druthers: writing, writing and writing some more.
"If I could draw the blueprint for the future, there wouldn't be a whole lot changed," he says. "But I guess it would be nice if I could hire someone to help me do some of the things that have to be done to maintain the site, so I could do more writing. That way I could commit full time to it, instead of working maybe 100 hours a week like I do now."
He's not kidding, of course. There's always more work to do, for America's sake.
Because, reminds Sterner, "I want our heroes to be remembered.
Sterner spends most of his time seated in front of his trusty computer, adding information to his sprawling Web site, www.HomeOfHeroes.com.
The Sterner File
Name: Claude Douglas Sterner
Birthplace: Kalispell, Mont.
Years in Pueblo: 12
Occupation: Business technology instructor at Pueblo Community College; webmaster, HomeOfHeroes.com
Family: wife, Pam (married 27 years); children, Jennifer (26), Claude 'Dutch' William (23), Douglas (16), Tiffany (12); grandchild, Dante
Favorite author/book: Ernest Hemingway, 'The Old Man and the Sea'
Favorite movie: 'Saving Private Ryan'
Favorite musical artist: Elvis Presley
Favorite TV show: I don't have time for TV
Favorite food: I don't have time to eat - but my wife's cheese enchiladas are the best.
Hobbies: I don't have time for hobbies; my hobbies have become my vocation.
Personal hero: My wife.
Honors: Bronze Star medals (two), Medal of Honor Society Distinguished Citizen Award, contributing author to 'Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul,' honored by Pueblo Police Department for helping to apprehend a fleeing robbery suspect.
Greatest personal accomplishment: My wife was the shyest, most insecure person I could have ever imagined. Today, that woman can do anything. That's my greatest personal accomplishment.
What I like best about Pueblo: The nice, relaxed, laid-back family sense that the city has.
Publish Date Sunday, August 4, 2002
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