WASHINGTON — Wiry and quick at age 62, Doug Sterner nearly leaped out of his chair to pull a folder off a shelf. It was a list of Army medal recipients that couldn’t possibly exist. Officials believed the only copies of personnel files needed to assemble it — along with some 18 million files in total — were consumed in a fire at a military personnel records center in St. Louis in 1973.
Yet there it was, shelved in a converted bedroom in his Alexandria, Va., apartment with hundreds of other color-coded folders containing more documentation of heroism that might otherwise be forgotten.
“That fire is the biggest dodge,” he said.
Thanks to the Army’s bureaucratic redundancy, most of what he needed to assemble this list was filed at National Archives in College Park, Md. Yet the fire was one of several reasons cited by the Department of Defense for not attempting to assemble a list of military valor medals.
“Anyone who says this can’t be done simply doesn’t have the will to do it,” Sterner said.
For nearly 15 years, as the DOD demurred, Sterner, a Vietnam veteran and former Army combat engineer, did the work himself. He abandoned the mountain views of Pueblo, Colo. — he and his wife had led a drive to change the town’s official nickname to “Home of Heroes” to honor four the city’s four living Medal of Honor recipients — for the northern Virginia suburbs to be closer to existing records.
Archive rooms at the National Archives, Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, the Washington Navy Yard and elsewhere became as familiar to him as the rooms of his new apartment. Filing Freedom of Information Act requests for public documents became a reflex, and the result was piles of unopened material awaiting data entry that cover most flat surfaces in his office.
By his estimate, Sterner has documented nearly 105,000 of the approximately 350,000 medals above the Bronze Star and up to the Medal of Honor.
The DOD’s stance changed last week when officials said the Pentagon would build such a database. It came in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which made it illegal to make false claims about military medals.
In explaining its reasoning, the court appeared to refer directly to Sterner’s work — an irony given that Sterner’s wife, Pam, is an activist who crafted the language in the 2006 law.
“The government could likely protect the integrity of the military awards system by creating a database of medal winners accessible and searchable on the Internet, as some private individuals have already done,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s ruling.
The lack of an authoritative list has left the door open for fakers, ranging from unscrupulous to evil, to bask in glory they never earned. In one case last month, a New Jersey man posing as a Navy SEAL on a dating website was charged with raping a 15-year-old girl.
For Sterner and his wife, the effort to catalog valor awards has been a labor of love, and at times they’ve struggled. In recent years, the Military Times Media Group has supported Sterner’s work, paying him as a contractor and hosting his Hall of Valor database on its website.
“I was ready to go belly up when Military Times stepped in and partnered with me on this,” he said.
Sterner has the records he needs to vet another 75,000 awards, but hasn’t had time to process them yet. In an ideal world, Sterner said, he and the DOD would partner to track down millions more Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts and Prisoner of War medals.
“I type it all in myself,” he says, adding that typing — as long as you’ve programmed the right macros into a database — is actually faster than scanning documents using an optical character recognition system.
No one from the DOD has yet contacted him to request his assistance or even check on his research methods. He hopes someone does soon.
Pentagon officials last week would not comment on how the department planned to approach building the database.
“Obviously they can go do it on their own and say heck with me and Military Times,” he said. “But if they’re smart, they’ll work with us. We have the infrastructure in place, we have the knowledge, we have the step-by-step understood.”
With a team of 15 people and $1 million or less, he said, he could document all major Navy, Marine and Coast Guard medals within one year. The Army and Air Force, in part because of the St. Louis fire, would take longer, but is still doable to a high degree of accuracy, he said.
Still, it will be based upon written records and their occasional foibles. Because of that, despite the Supreme Court’s opinion, his Hall of Valor will never be an infallible judge of stolen valor, he admitted.
But punishing liars isn’t why Sterner started hunting down medals in the first place. His most powerful inspiration through the years of work, he said, was a close friend, Jaime Pacheco, killed in Vietnam in 1972. Pacheco, a Ranger, sacrificed himself to cover his reconnaissance team’s withdrawal from a bunker complex.
That sacrifice, and the Silver Star that resulted, should never be lost or forgotten, he said.
“I think even worse than when someone pretends to be a hero — stolen valor — is when the nation forgets generations of real heroes,” he said. “That’s forgotten valor. I can’t allow that to happen.”