Military Roll of Valor Act of 2007

From the News Story Archive

September 25, 2007

Veteran promotes database for military honors


It was inevitable but not unavoidable.

When the Library of Congress began its Veterans History Project seven years ago - encouraging veterans or their families to compile oral, video or written histories about their time in service - it was inevitable that some would inflate their accomplishments, would award themselves medals they didn't really receive.

After all, who would ever check the record?

Unfortunately for those wannabe heroes, Doug Sterner checks the record. The Pueblo man has compiled a massive database on Medal of Honor recipients as well as those who have received the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross and Air Force Cross, the nation's second-highest military decorations for bravery in combat.

In fact, Sterner's wife, Pam, wrote a college term paper that became the Stolen Valor Act of 2006, which makes it a federal crime to falsely claim to have received military decorations. The couple started the effort after Sterner compiled his Home of Heroes Web site, which is devoted to the Medal of Honor. In the process, they learned about the many men who brazenly pretend to have been awarded the nation's highest medal.

Veterans groups, FBI agents and others use Sterner's database when they suspect someone is posing as a hero and, as a result, dozens of imposters have been caught - and now face punishment under federal law.

That is why Sterner began scanning the Library of Congress veterans' project Web site more than a year ago. Experience told him that military histories submitted by veterans themselves would probably include many imposters. Very quickly he found three men who falsely claimed to have received the Medal of Honor.

"I contacted the Library of Congress at the time to let them know," Sterner explained. "Their response was essentially, ‘Don't bother us.’ ”

That wasn't very likely because Sterner has been working for the past few years on building his database of military decorations - a job he thinks the federal government should be doing.

Given the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to falsely claim to have received the Medal of Honor, any of the military crosses or the Purple Heart, Sterner said the Library of Congress ought to have been more sensitive to the problem that only was going to grow unless checked.

That problem came to a head recently when reporters for the Marine Times newspaper wrote that 24 veterans who had filed histories with the Library of Congress wrongly claimed to have received the Medal of Honor. Making it worse, the reporters found more than 30 false claims for Distinguished Service Crosses and 14 false reports of being awarded the Navy Cross.

The reporters used Sterner's database to cement their findings.

Last week, the Library of Congress issued a statement defending the Veterans Project as a congressionally mandated effort that is not a historical archive - meaning factual - but a collection of personal wartime reflections.

"As such, the (Veterans History Project) does not verify the accuracy of the accounts that are provided to the project," the statement said.

Even so, library officials confirmed they would remove false medal claims when those are discovered.

Sterner said that answer falls short for the veterans who have legitimately been awarded their medals.

"When you put the Library of Congress stamp on the project, people will take it as factual history," Sterner said. "If they are not going to care about the facts, then they should rename the project, ‘War Stories, Including Some That Are True.’ ”

Sterner wants Congress to take the next step and authorize a single, public database on all military decorations, especially the top decorations for bravery in combat.

An Army veteran of Vietnam and a holder of the Bronze Star himself, Sterner believes public access to that important information would be a great service to veterans and their families - and quickly chase off the imposters who pretend to be heroes.

The project, which Sterner guesses would cost about $8 million to create, would quickly pay for itself in stopping fraud in the Veterans Administration. Sterner pointed to five recent arrests in the Seattle area where military imposters were caught, several of whom had received a total of $1.4 million in unearned veterans benefits.

"We need to get some congressional hearings on this and then the public would recognize the extent of the problem and the benefits of correcting it," he said.

On the day following publication of the above story on the need for a national database reflecting the names and citations of those men and women awarded military awards, the Pueblo Chieftain Editorial Board followed up with the following Op/Ed in the Editorial Page:

Preserving valor


LAST YEAR Congress passed and President Bush signed into law the Stolen Valor Act. Now, in addition to the Medal of Honor, it is a crime to wear fakes of other high military awards.

The proposal was the brainchild of Pam Sterner, a Pueblo woman who first suggested the legislation in a term paper for a class at Colorado State University-Pueblo in 2004. She’s the wife of Doug Sterner, who operates the Home of Heroes Web site with information about the Medal of Honor, including the four Puebloans who were awarded the nation’s highest honor.

Now it’s Mr. Sterner’s turn. He is proposing that Congress order a national database on all those service members who have been awarded the nation’s top medals for valor, including the Medal of Honor and the three service crosses, the second highest honors bestowed on our warriors.

What prompted this was a check of the Veterans History Project begun seven years ago by the Library of Congress. Mr. Sterner maintains the Home of Heroes Web site listing all who have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Using that database, a reporter for the Marine Corps Times found that half of those in the history project who claimed the MOH were false. Besides those 24 imposters, the reporter uncovered 30 false claims for the Distinguished Service Cross and 14 false claims for the Navy Cross.

Mr. Sterner believes it is the government’s job to maintain the definitive database for all valor awards. He’s seeking congressional support for the “Preservation of Valor Act” which would create that database.

For its part, the Library of Congress issued a statement last week defending the Veterans Project as a congressionally mandated effort that isn't a historical archive and thus doesn’t have to verify the accuracy of the accounts submitted to it. But Mr. Sterner pointed out that, “When you put the Library of Congress stamp on the project, people will take it as factual history. If they are not going to care about the facts, then they should rename the project ‘War Stories, Including Some That Are True.’”

U.S. Reps. John Salazar and Doug Lamborn of Colorado support creation of a national database as envisioned by Mr. Sterner. There are others in Congress inclined likewise, including Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., the House’s only Iraq veteran.

Ultimately, whether hearings come to fruition in the House Armed Services Committee will depend on Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee on military personnel, where any motion on the issue must start. We urge Rep. Davis to call for hearings.

Our valiant service members who have earned their grateful nation’s highest honors deserve to have their names protected from the wannabes who spoil those honors.

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