Military Roll of Valor Act of 2007

From the News Story Archive

 

 

 

By John Hoellwarth - jhoellwarth@militarytimes.com
Posted : September 17, 2007

Database could serve as example for feds

With the nation at war, the number of decorated veterans is on the rise, a trend law enforcement officials agree is historically accompanied by an increase in phonies attempting to cash in on the respect legitimate heroes receive.

Though frauds usually skyline themselves by going too far — often claiming numerous service crosses, Silver Stars and Purple Hearts — it’s often difficult to tell the real heroes from the fake ones. It’s even more problematic to confirm suspicions when a story or ribbon rack looks too good to be true.

The solution is simple, relatively cheap, and comes down to a moral imperative for the federal government, said Doug Sterner, a civilian in Pueblo, Colo., who’s spent the last nine years compiling an online database of everyone who has earned the nation’s top three awards for combat valor since World War I.

The records on Sterner’s Web site, www.homeofheroes.com, are rock-solid and attract about 8 million hits each month. The FBI and several other government agencies use his database to check up on people they suspect of wearing unearned awards.

That’s because the government doesn’t have a central database of its own, something Sterner and several veterans organizations are pushing to change.

Each branch of the military keeps its own records of award recipients, but those records are partially digitized and available to the public only through Freedom of Information Act requests that often take months to process, making it difficult for communities to identify the phonies in their midst and problematic for military officials to honor unsung heroes in their ranks.

Sterner said 50 percent of the requests he’s received over the years have come from Army, Navy and Air Force officials who ask, “Do you have so and so’s citation? We’re naming a rifle range for him and such-and-such.”

Sterner said he has connected countless people with the citations they have needed to dedicate buildings and memorials to recipients, but he’d rather the military took it out of his hands because “I’m doing a job the government should be doing.”

He’s urging the House and Senate veterans’ affairs and armed services committees to hold hearings on the topic of military personnel records, hoping that lawmakers will protect heroes and guard against fakers by creating an “official” online national database of valor award recipients.

Sterner’s sentiments are echoed by the nation’s largest veterans organizations and may be gaining steam on the Hill.

“Military awards, decorations and badges should already be electronically filed for [discharge paperwork] purposes,” said Joe Davis, national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Consolidating such records in this information age should be a snap.”

Ramona Joyce, spokeswoman for the American Legion’s national headquarters, called creating a national database of awards recipients “a no-brainer.”

Playing “devil’s advocate,” Joyce said the government should ensure a national database doesn’t put “too much personal information” in the public domain and noted that “while we’d like to recognize all heroes, not all heroes would like to be recognized.”

Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., who sits on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, feels “it makes perfect sense for him to carry legislation as a follow-up to Stolen Valor [Act of 2005],” which he introduced in the House two years ago, said his spokesman, Rick Palacio. The law made it a crime to claim unearned valor awards.

“There should be an accessible digital database of military records including medals and awards,” he said. “I don’t know what the likelihood of hearings are, but someone will take up the issue of legislating the database in the near future. Congressman Salazar has been giving it a lot of thought.”

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who signed onto the bill after a former Marine in his district was caught wearing an unearned Navy Cross, may again co-sponsor the legislation if Salazar introduces it in the House.

“Sam in very interested in this idea,” said his communications director, Jason Klindt. “There should never be any doubt that medals were won and not stolen, so he is committed to protecting the integrity of these awards.”

 

TIMES EDITORIAL

Establish valor database to honor national heroes

 After watching the film “Saving Private Ryan,” which showed scenes of the U.S. cemetery in Normandy, France, Monty McDaniel became curious about the grave of his uncle, who is buried there.

On the Web site for the American Battle Monument Commission, McDaniel discovered that his uncle, Army Staff Sgt. Paul Alexander, received the Distinguished Service Cross three months after he died in 1944.

But no one had told his family that their soldier ever earned the nation’s second-highest combat award for valor.

McDaniel then went down the list. Another soldier, Staff Sgt. Lawrence Gunderson, also received a posthumous DSC, the same day as Alexander. He contacted Gunderson’s family; it was news to them, too.

It’s hard to believe, but there is no national database of valor awards for |U.S. service members. So it’s ­impossible to say just how many other bona fide war heroes are buried unheralded in grassy fields, their lives silenced by ­bullets and their exploits ­silenced by a bureaucracy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are men like Roy Scott, who pretended to be a decorated Korean War veteran so he could bilk the Department of Veterans Affairs out of $22,000. Again, without a publicly accessible, searchable database, it often takes an eagle-eyed veteran or a scorned family member or business partner to expose a phony.

Many of these truth-seekers turn to the various branches of the military, with spotty success. Often, if the service can’t answer whether a person truly received, say, a Silver Star, or what rank that person was when he left the military (if he even served at all), investigators are stuck with the National Personnel Records Center, which requires a Social Security number before it can produce the goods.

Enter Doug Sterner, a Pueblo, Colo., man who, on his own, maintains the closest thing to a definitive database of Medal of Honor, service cross and Silver Star citations. It was Sterner’s work that led to passage of the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which made it a crime to claim unearned valor awards.

Like many others, he believes it is the government’s job to maintain the definitive database for all valor awards. Working with lawmakers, Sterner is in the early stages of pushing for the “Preservation of Valor Act,” which would create that database.

He believes that if Congress held hearings and drew attention to the problem, many more would realize the twin advantages of such a database: Citizens can use the information to honor their heroes, while quickly and easily exposing those who use phony service and combat valor to inflate their egos and their ­wallets.

Sterner estimates this would cost about $6 million over two years. Considering that the ­Defense Department spends more than $1 billion a day, |$6 million is a tiny drop in a large bucket.

Not only must Congress act now to fund the effort (which will probably need to be administered by the VA or Pentagon), but this database must also be searchable by anyone with ­Internet access.

It’s well past time to start ­uncovering real heroes while ­exposing the phonies. Such a database would make all the ­difference.

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