Vietnam veteran Doug Sterner has dedicated years of his life to compiling a database of American service members who have received the nation’s highest awards for military valor. Using official documents gathered from the National Archives and other repositories, Sterner has identified and verified some 200,000 award recipients since 1998. His database now forms the foundation of the Military Times newspaper group’s online Hall of Valor, which Sterner—a Military Times contributing editor—continues to curate.
While his original intent was to preserve for posterity the names and acts of those listed in his database, the information has also proved vital in unmasking individuals who fraudulently claim military awards, ranks or other recognition. The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2012 decision to strike down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005—which made it a federal misdemeanor for individuals to falsely represent themselves as having received any U.S. military decoration—has made the Hall of Valor an even more useful tool in the continuing effort to determine who is a true American hero, and who is not. At press time the U.S. House of Representatives had passed a revamped version of the act.
‘No generation has had a shortage of predators who will lie about what they have accomplished for their own aims’
How did Military Times’ Hall of Valor come to be?
I had been working on my awards database for more than a decade, doing it 12 to14 hours a day, seven days a week. I approached Military Times about buying sponsorship in my personal website. They saw the importance of the project and offered to purchase my database and hire me to work on it and continue to build it.
Does the Department of Defense have its own awards database?
Because the Medal of Honor has an associated pension, in 1917 Congress mandated that a Roll of Honor be kept for MOH recipients. Other than that, however, there exists no official listing of individuals who have received any other awards. [Editor’s note: DOD has since rolled out a database listing recipients of multiple awards for actions since Sept. 11, 2001.]
Why should the stolen valor issue be important to Americans?
My wife, Pam, who wrote the paper that became the basis for the Stolen Valor Act, described stolen valor as “an iceberg crime”—just the tip visible above the surface. Stolen valor is generally part of a pattern of criminal activity, and as a result of investigating stolen valor, we often uncover additional frauds.
What do you track?
I focus on all awards above the Bronze Star. I estimate that to be somewhere in the vicinity of 350,000 awards in history.
I also track U.S. prisoners of war. Our database is 100 percent complete for all POWs from 1954 to the present and approximately 95 percent complete for all Korean War POWs. And I track general officers—for example, I have 99 percent of all Marine Corps generals in history—deceased, retired or active duty. If somebody says, “I am a retired Marine Corps general,” and they are not in the Hall of Valor, they are probably lying.
How much information is available on each person?
We have full award citations for about 70,000 of the 107,000 records currently on the site. When you go to a citation, you’ll see a picture of the recipient, if I have one, and beneath their name will be their date and place of birth, and date of death and burial place, if available.
Is it your intention to expose people who fraudulently claim awards?
It was never my intention to expose phonies. I started my work long before I realized there were individuals so low they would fraudulently claim these awards. Exposing stolen valor is an ancillary benefit to having the database of award recipients.
Has any particular conflict generated a larger percentage of bogus award recipients?
No, it seems to be consistent across the board. We get as many phonies from World War II as we do from Vietnam, Korea and the current war. No generation has had a shortage of predators who will lie about what they have accomplished for their own aims and goals.
Do you and DOD share awards data?
My interaction with DOD is a one-way street—them coming to me for information. I have found them generally uncooperative and uninterested until they need something. The exception is the Marine Corps, which is why my database is close to 95 percent complete for all awards above the Bronze Star ever given to Marines.
Why are the Marines more interested in a two-way relationship?
It stems from the fact there is such a high sense of esprit de corps and pride in history in the Marine Corps that we don’t see in the other service branches. The Marines have a sense of their heritage and of remembering their heroes that is quite enviable.
Are other organizations or individuals doing the same sort of work you do?
There are various efforts targeted to particular units. For example, I recently received all of the general orders for awards in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment from a unit historian, and I was able to type them up and post them. And a man named Brandon Wiegand has gone through probably half of the 100 divisions that served in World War II and has created indexes of awards down to and including Bronze Stars, Air Medals and even letters of commendation.
Preceding me are many people who have also done this independently. Following World War I a man named Harry Stringer compiled all of the Army awards for that conflict—and several years afterward—in a book titled Heroes All. He also compiled The Navy Book of Distinguished Service, containing all of the Navy’s awards in World War I. Before she retired in 1957, Jane Blakeney—a Marine Corps historian—published a book with the names of Marine Corps recipients of Navy and Marine Corps Medals, Legions of Merit, the Silver Star and higher awards.
My personal hero is the late Colonel Albert Gleim, who in retirement spent thousands of hours in the National Archives. His indexes of World War II and Korean War Silver Stars and higher are used by the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis and by the National Archives. They are unofficial, but I have found Gleim’s work to be impeccable. His error rate is probably less than one-tenth of 1 percent.
How do you enter new information into the database?
I do all the data entry myself. I type up the citations and then email the data to the tech people at Military Times to upload to the Hall of Valor. I would estimate our database is 99 percent complete for all personal awards from the Civil War up until 1941—that’s somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000 individual awards.
Can people add names to the database?
Absolutely, but everything that goes into the database is fully vetted, even when it is submitted, because I have had cases of individuals submitting bogus citations to me.
Is there any one military document that is a better verification source?
General orders produced by the units themselves, generally speaking, are best for Army awards. Navy awards are probably the easiest of all. At the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., there are approximately 460 boxes, each containing between 1,200 and 1,500 index cards bearing the citations for all Navy Department awards from inception of the award system up until approximately 1990. I would estimate that it’s probably 98 to 99 percent complete and very, very accurate.
Why have you dedicated so much time and effort to this issue?
It’s important that we keep track of this for history. These awards are not about the man or woman who received them. They know what they did. Rather, it is about their children and their grandchildren. Fifty years from now when a child asks what Grandpa or Grandma did to get a Silver Star in Iraq or Afghanistan, we ought to be able to answer the question honestly, completely and accurately.