One Man’s Life’s Work Is Memorializing the Valor of US Service Members

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President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta in the East Room of the White House, November 16, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

It’s the highest award the country can bestow upon the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States. The Medal of Honor was first conceived during the Civil War, and through all the wars since it has been awarded to only 3,505 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines -- and one Coast Guardsman.

Needless to say, earning the medal can be extremely hazardous to your health, as many are awarded posthumously. But what many people may not know is that actually receiving the award may be as difficult a battle as earning it in the first place.

In a recent episode of Military.com’s podcast, Left of Boom, Managing Editor Hope Hodge Seck sits down with Doug Sterner, creator of the Hall of Valor, to talk about why the Medal of Honor is so closely guarded and policed.

To be awarded the Medal of Honor, there has to be a significant risk to one’s life in the battlefield actions they take. The justification also requires an eyewitness and it must meet one of the most stringent legal standards there is: beyond a reasonable doubt.

But even if the medal isn’t awarded right away, reviews of top-tier awards, such as the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross and the Air Force Cross, are often conducted and found that they warrant an upgrade.

Doug Sterner is the foremost expert on all things Medal of Honor. Sterner was an Army combat engineer from the Vietnam War who created Home of Heroes, an online museum dedicated to the Medal of Honor and other valor awards. It is the most comprehensive database of military valor awards there is. He’s also the author of 73 books on the subject.

“Only a combat engineer could do what I’m doing. DoD said it was impossible, engineers say nothing is impossible. Essayons, We Will Try,” Sterner told Seck, echoing the motto of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

When he started compiling Medal of Honor stories, there were only around 3,000 recipients. He has not only compiled a historical database for Medal of Honor recipients, but has also added more than 25,000 recipients of the Navy Cross, Air Force Cross and Distinguished Service Cross.

Not only did he work to catalog the top two tiers of military awards, he then moved on to add citations and stories for recipients of the Silver Star, all 130,000 of them. Over the course of 17 years, he found 107,000 of those -- including 70,000 digitized citations.

“It’s not impossible,” Sterner says.

The effort is not without its complications. In the course of compiling so many stories of valor, he’s come across citations that are phony and others that are completely lost to history.

“I have identified approximately 40 individuals who got Silver Stars in the 1993 Mogadishu operation that was the basis of the ‘Black Hawk Down’ movie,” he recalls. “I FOIA-ed them, [referring to making a Freedom of Information Act request for official government documents] and found there was no record of the Silver Star in their military personnel file … and yet I found Department of the Army general orders listing them as Silver Star recipients.”

Sterner goes on to say that the most difficult time period for gathering historical records is actually 1975 to the present. The reason: record keeping.

“None of the services really track the awards they’re giving out,” he says. “The DoD told the Baltimore Sun that they didn’t have a list of Silver Star recipients from Iraq and Afghanistan because they couldn’t find them all.”

For more about Dog Sterner’s ongoing quest to memorialize the men and women who earn awards for valor, check the episode of Left of Boom.

Tune in to new episodes of Military.com's podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn and Stitcher. Follow host Hope Hodge Seck on Twitter @HopeSeck.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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