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.
– The Army Times