On the hunt for military phonies
Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, Mass.)
In August of 2007, C. Douglas Sterner's attention was drawn to a story in a Connecticut newspaper about a decorated Vietnam veteran at the forefront of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's fledgling casino pursuit.
Of interest to Sterner, himself the recipient of two Bronze Stars in that war, was a reference to then Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Chairman Glenn Marshall earning not only the Silver Star, one of the military's highest honors, but also five Purple Hearts — the medal given to soldiers and Marines injured by the enemy in battle.
Something in that story in The Day newspaper didn't jibe with Sterner, who has worked for nearly a decade to do what the military has never done — create a database of medal recipients called the Hall of Valor. He'd never heard of the Marines handing out so many Purple Hearts.
He used his connections to do some research and quickly found Marshall's story had the all-too-familiar whiff of a phony. He tried, with little success, to tell The Day reporter she'd been duped.
Six days later, the Cape Cod Times reported Marshall's biography was littered with embellishments. He had indeed served in Vietnam, but for four months. His frequently told story about being at the Battle of Khe Sanh in the spring of 1968 — to Vietnam-era Marines what Iwo Jima was to the few and proud in World War II — was completely bogus. Marshall was a senior at Lawrence High School in Falmouth while Marines fought back against the 77-day onslaught, the Times reported.
Marshall's lying, as well as a 1980 rape that was also uncovered by the Times, led to him initially stepping aside temporarily as tribe chairman and, ultimately, being ousted.
Sterner's role in uncovering Marshall's embellishments is detailed in a chapter of a new book written by him, his wife Pam Sterner and author Michael Mink called "Restoring Valor." The book is due to be released early next month by Skyhorse Publishing in New York.
"Stolen valor is still misunderstood. A lot of people see it as harmless — soldiers tell war stories — and not being as prevalent as it is or a major concern," Sterner said. "I took this on to help people realize that it is a prevalent and serious problem. It's not the lie. It's what they use it for."
Marshall's tales began when the tribe was fighting for federal recognition, a key step in being able to get a tribal casino. In 2003, Marshall's biography helped motivate U.S. Rep. John T. Doolittle, a California Republican, to write a letter in support of the tribe's efforts. A year later, Marshall described himself as a "survivor of the Siege of Khe Sanh" during a congressional hearing.
By the time Marshall was exposed in 2007, the tribe had achieved federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs months earlier and was in hot pursuit of a $1 billion casino in Middleboro that appeared to be on the fast track. When Marshall was caught, tribe leadership was thrown into chaos and that fast moving train was derailed.
"It was all for himself," Sterner said of Marshall. "He was the poster boy for stolen valor."
In 2005, the Sterners, particularly Pam Sterner, were instrumental in getting a law passed called the Stolen Valor Act that makes it a federal crime to lie about military awards. The first law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 because of free speech concerns, but a revised law was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last year that makes it a crime to fake military credentials for personal gain.
Marshall was never charged under the Stolen Valor Act, in part because the most egregious stories were told not by Marshall, but a tribe lobbyist. Marshall did tell the whopper about Khe Sanh himself, but no one pursued charges. It is a crime to lie to Congress.
Marshall would face other legal problems and ultimately went to federal prison for three years for stealing money from the tribe and making fraudulent campaign donations. He pleaded guilty.
Marshall, released in 2012 from federal prison, did not return a call seeking comment.
Uncovering phonies isn't what Sterner set out to do, but it became a byproduct of his database collecting. Weeks after the Times story was published, Sterner found that Marshall's bogus claims were part of a collection at the Library of Congress Veterans History Project — a valuable resource for a renowned Ken Burns documentary called "The War." Marshall had told his tale to some Barnstable Middle School students and the Library of Congress, which had no protocol in place to verify the stories that came in, included Marshall's.
It was a black eye for the project that had already suffered the embarrassment of having Sterner show that 24 of 49 entries claiming the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award, were fakes.
Marshall's audio tape has since been removed from the collection, the bogus Medal of Honor recipients have been weeded out, and the Library of Congress no longer publishes claims of medals.
"It's amazing how many people have a lot to be proud of and screw it up by wanting it to be more," Sterner said. "People do this because they can. There's no complete database for employers to look at employees or for a woman to see who her sweetheart really is. They get some personal gain out of perpetuating the lie."
'Our system worked'
"Restoring Valor" is filled with tales of false claims that have duped family members, friends, employers and politicians.
It also has another prominent Massachusetts angle, never before told publicly.
In 2012, while he was still in the U.S. Senate and locked in a tight race with Elizabeth Warren, then Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., sponsored the Senate version of the revised Stolen Valor Act.
Doug Sterner had never met Brown, but was familiar with the senator. A few months earlier, Brown's staff had called Sterner seeking some women-friendly military statistics for a press conference. Sterner obliged.
Sterner's wife, Pam, had written the first Stolen Valor Act as a college student at the University of Colorado the year before it was approved. She told her husband she was going to write it as a project and get it passed.
Sterner didn't take the idea seriously. Not because he didn't believe it was a good one, but because he didn't believe Congress would go for it.
Pam Sterner, with the help of U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., got the law passed in 2005. (Although, the bill that passed was actually an identical bill filed by a veteran Republican because of politics.)
In 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Stolen Valor Act, citing concerns over the slippery slope it might have on free speech, the Sterners were disappointed but resilient.
"It wasn't really difficult because the American system worked," Doug Sterner said. "I hate hypocrisy. We say the Constitution is great up until it conflicts with something we like. Our system worked. I disagreed with decision of Supreme Court justices, but that was their decision. It was up to me to work within system and go back to drawing board and fix it."
In its decision, the Supreme Court had added a recommendation that was close to Sterner's heart. They suggested the military ought to have a database of legitimate medal winners.
Buoyed by the support of the Obama administration in defending the Stolen Valor Act before the nation's highest court and seemingly bipartisan support to refile the legislation, the Sterners went to work on Capitol Hill. They welcomed Brown, a Republican, as sponsor in the Senate and helped get co-sponsors on the other side of the aisle.
Things went sour, though, before a press conference called in July of 2012 to announce the Stolen Valor Act. Doug Sterner got an email from U.S. Rep. Joseph Heck's office that "they" no longer wanted his wife, Pam, as a speaker during the press conference. The email came after a press advisory had already been sent out listing Pam Sterner as a speaker. "They" wanted him, a military veteran to speak, Doug Sterner said.
It was stinging blow to Doug Sterner, who knew how hard his wife had worked to convince everyone, including him, that the first Stolen Valor Act was a worthy cause. "She did an amazing job," he said.
Sterner wanted her there at that press conference. He made attempts to change the minds of the politicians involved. Sterner told Heck's staff in an email that without Pam on the dais, the press conference would have to go on without him, too.
In a phone call, a Heck staffer made it clear that "they" were firm — no Pam.
Sterner would find out the "they" was Brown, or at least Brown's staff. He was outraged.
"This is a guy who promotes himself as being women friendly and he dumped all over my wife," Sterner said. "I guess he thought I would be so impressed at being asked. It was the wrong thing to do."
Brown said he has no personal knowledge of why Sterner's wife was removed from the list of speakers. "I wouldn't care who spoke at a press conference," Brown said Wednesday.
In a follow-up message after consulting with his press secretary and chief of staff, Brown said the press conference was controlled by Heck's office. "We were merely asked to show and speak at it," he said. "We had no control over the speakers."
Days after the press conference, Sterner was quoted in a Huffington Post article saying he would vote for Warren if he lived in Massachusetts — though he insists that had more to do with her stance on health care. He was asked by that reporter why he had not participated in the press conference supporting the Stolen Valor Act, but declined to tell him on the record.
Sterner believes it was a mistake by Brown and his staff to exclude Pam Sterner. Brown, an active member of the Massachusetts National Guard, could have ridden the coattails of the new Stolen Valor Act in his tough campaign against Warren.
"You don't step on the little guy to get to the top because he can come back and bite you on the backside," Sterner said.
A day after the press conference, Brown made a speech on the Senate floor that Sterner believes delayed action on the bill.
"I'm hopeful that the commander in chief will lend his voice to this cause," Brown said, according to a videotape of his 2012 speech on the Senate floor. "To show leadership on this issue and to give his blessing so we can actually get to work on something that will truly pass, I would venture, 99-to-nothing, in this chamber."
It was seen by some as a partisan ploy, Sterner said.
"I thought it was a slap in the face to the Obama administration," Sterner said. "They had just defended the act before the Supreme Court."
To think that's what delayed the bill is naive on Sterner's part, Brown said. He was told in the Senate cloakroom that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wouldn't allow the bill to go forward. "They weren't going to give me a victory that would help me get re-elected," Brown said.
The former senator, who has moved to New Hampshire and is seen as a possible candidate for U.S. Senate in that state, said he's disappointed that he's being criticized for a bill he sponsored and supported. "I never cared how it passed, as long as it passed," Brown said.
In May, the revised Stolen Valor Act passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate and by a 390-3 margin in the U.S. House.
After four years in Washington, D.C., the Sterners are back in Colorado where Doug works 12-14 hours a day building his database of real war heroes.
The message Sterner hopes readers will get out of the book? "One person, with a dream to do the right thing, if you work hard enough, you can do it."