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

David Zucchino / Los Angeles Times /

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.

‘Don’t settle’

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 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.

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