One man’s heroic quest: Cataloging 350,000 medal-of-valor winners
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Doug Sterner drives from his cluttered apartment here to the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., carrying a portable photocopier and a belief in American heroes.
Inside the Navy archives, he flips through thousands of typed index cards detailing bravery in battle. Sterner pulls out a card and starts reading. He’s mesmerized by this story:
Charles Valentine August, a Navy pilot who shot down two enemy planes in World War II, was later shot down himself and captured in North Africa. After escaping, August returned to combat and was shot down again and taken prisoner by the Japanese.
August was awarded a Silver Star for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action.” Sterner carefully photocopies the card.
Stories like August’s fuel Sterner’s single-minded quest to compile the records of every last soldier, sailor, airman and Marine awarded one of the nation’s top three medals for valor in combat from every American war. He’s been at it every day, 12 hours a day for 14 years, determined to build the comprehensive medals database the Pentagon has never provided.
“Such cases for me are like finding gold,” Sterner says of August’s heroism.
In 1998, Sterner wanted to build a museum for Medal of Honor winners. He started checking government records and discovered that the military had never pulled together in one place the accounts of the 350,000 recipients of medals above the Bronze Star.
He heard from frustrated families of medal recipients unable to get documentation from the Pentagon. He decided to do it himself; he would make it his life mission to honor medal winners by documenting their heroics. Six years ago, he quit his job as a college computer instructor in Pueblo, Colo., to devote full attention to his passion, a database called Hall of Valor.
Sterner, 62, has documented 115,000 medal recipients. He predicts he’ll be at 150,000 by the end of the year, and he vows to finish all 350,000 before he dies. At times, he has been helped by his four children and his wife, Pam, who works for a nonprofit. He has also relied on material from other researchers.
Back home, in a converted bedroom crammed with files and folders, Sterner types into his computer the heroics of August and others he had photocopied that day. Later, he gulps coffee as he punches in accounts of Army, Air Force and Marine Corps medal recipients he’s dug out of other archives.
At the Navy archives, Sterner is copying records in alphabetical order. He’s now on the Bs. He figures he needs an additional year and a half to work his way through the alphabet and finish copying cards for the 50,000 medal recipients.
Two-thirds of Sterner’s entries include citations, or official narratives, of acts of bravery. Sterner adds expanded accounts, as well as photographs, from newspaper stories and unit histories. Without his data, there would be no direct way for medal recipients and their survivors to find records of heroics.
“They’d be lost to history,” Sterner says.
While researching medals last week, Sterner stumbled across a Web page that listed Social Security numbers for 31 Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross winners — accidentally made public by an Army contractor. The Army removed the information after learning of Sterner’s discovery.
The Pentagon says 16 million personnel files were destroyed in a 1973 fire at a St. Louis military records center. Sterner says he’s found thousands of files buried in the Pentagon’s archives — a tribute to the military’s legendary insistence on redundant paperwork.
Three years ago, Sterner moved to Alexandria to be closer to medal records at the Navy Yard, the National Archives and Marine Corps Base Quantico. He says the Pentagon could easily — and far quicker than he can — dig out paper records scattered around Washington and collect them in a central database.
“They just don’t have the will,” Sterner says, not even looking up from his typing. He rolls his chair across the room to yank down a heavy folder of documents and says, “I’m myopically focused on this. I don’t have time for anything else.”
Sterner is a lean, fast-talking Vietnam veteran who was awarded two Bronze Stars, but they are not in his database. He focuses instead on the top three: the Medal of Honor, service crosses and the Silver Star (plus a few noncombat Legion of Merit medals for valor).
“I have to draw the line somewhere,” he says.
To help Sterner continue his efforts, Military Times bought his database in 2008 and includes it on its website. The publication pays Sterner a monthly stipend.
People who stumble upon his name in Web searches often ask him for help. Some have been told the records were destroyed. “Don’t settle for the fire excuse,” he tells them.
A man in Wooster, Ohio, was looking for records of his dead uncle’s World War II Silver Star, awarded for holding off a German attack in France in 1944 until he was fatally wounded. Sterner had a detailed account in his database.
A woman in Escondido, Calif., sought proof of her father’s World War II Distinguished Service Cross for charging two German machine gun nests in Italy in 1944. Sterner had that one too.
Jan Girando of Overland Park, Kan., wanted a marker placed in her father’s honor at Arlington National Cemetery. She needed proof of the Navy Cross he was awarded in World War II. Frustrated after months of futile dealings with the Pentagon, Girando contacted Sterner, who found records of Navy bomber pilot Victor L. Miller’s attack that helped sink a Japanese aircraft carrier in 1944. Girando got the marker.
“One man is doing what the government should have been doing for years: helping regular people find out about the heroes in their families,” Girando said.
Sterner files about 50 Freedom of Information Act requests a week for medal citations that he can’t find in archives — 5,000 requests in all and counting.
In July, the Pentagon unveiled a website, valor.defense.gov, that lists Medal of Honor, service crosses and Silver Star recipients since Sept. 11, 2001. The list has fewer than 850 names and shows only name, rank and war. The Pentagon cautions that the data are not comprehensive and should not be used to confirm medal recipients.
“It’s pathetic; they’ve done the bare minimum,” said Tobias Naegele, editor in chief of Gannett Government Media, which publishes Military Times. “It’s a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound.”
Jack Harkins, a Marine veteran and chairman of the United Veterans Council of San Diego County, called the Pentagon website “a sorry side step.”
The Pentagon is considering including medals awarded before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said. But she said pulling together a list of all major medal recipients would be impractical and costly — and impossible, in part, because of the 1973 fire. In addition, documentation for many medals awarded on the battlefield never made it to military headquarters, and veterans could opt out of any listing, Lainez said.
She said of Sterner, “We commend him for his interest in recognizing our nation’s heroes.”
Sterner and his wife have also been involved in efforts to stop people from falsely claiming medals, but that’s secondary.
“I’d rather see a dozen phonies claim false awards than have one legitimate hero not be recognized for bravery,” he says. “I’m not the stolen-valor guy. I’m the lost-valor guy.”
The walls of Sterner’s home office are lined with binders such as “USMC Silver Star, S-Z,” or “U.S. Navy Cross, H-J.” There are unit histories, medal citations, wrinkled newspaper clippings. It all forms a sort of dark paper cave, with Sterner a spectral figure sorting page after page of documents.
He selects a photocopy of an index card he’d found in the Navy archives along with August’s card. This one was for Marine 2nd Lt. Richard Ronald Amerine:
Shot down over Guadalcanal in 1942, Amerine swam three miles to a Japanese-held shoreline. He spent the next six days, barefoot and unarmed, trying to reach an American airfield. Confronted by a Japanese soldier, Amerine killed him with a rock and took his weapon. He shot dead three Japanese snipers who hunted him through the woods. He finally reached the airfield, battered and starving.
“By his grim determination and indomitable fighting spirit he overcame almost insurmountable difficulties,” read the citation for Amerine’s Silver Star.
Sterner hunches over his keyboard, oblivious to the brilliant sunshine lighting up pink crepe myrtles outside his apartment window. He types in every word from Amerine’s card, preserving for eternity one Marine’s heroics from 70 years ago.