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One man's heroic quest: Cataloging 350,000 medal-of-valor winners

For 14 years, veteran Doug Sterner has been combing military archives to create a list of all the recipients of the top medals of valor, a task the Pentagon is unwilling to do.

October 04, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Doug Sterner looks up information on a military medal winner in his files. Six years ago, he quit his job as a college computer instructor to devote all his attention to his database.
Doug Sterner looks up information on a military medal winner in his files.… (David Zucchino, Los Angeles…)

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.

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