Local couple on front lines of Stolen Valor law

Local couple on front lines of Stolen Valor law
Doug Sterner is working on a database that lists every military medal winner in history. His wife, Pam, authored a college paper that served as the Stolen Valor Act’s blueprint. (Derrick Perkins)

Doug and Pam Sterner don’t want the notoriety that comes with exposing people posing as military heroes, but with the Supreme Court weighing the Stolen Valor Act’s constitutionality, the national spotlight seems inescapable.

Reporters from across the country have converged on the local husband and wife, who have a larger stake than most in the now controversial Congressional act, which outlaws lying about a military honor. A college paper Pam authored served as the 2006 law’s blueprint; Doug spends his days compiling service award recipients for a Military Times database.

The couple admits the legislation had an inauspicious beginning. Before Stolen Valor became law, people posing as military award recipients were only prosecutable if caught falsely wearing medals.

“We had people holding up medals, having newspaper articles done and they were smart enough not to put [the medals] on their person,” Pam said. “My idea was to take the existing legislation and close a loophole.”

She never saw the law leading to the prosecution of a grandparent for an embellished war account or making those trading exaggerated war stories over a beer criminals. The pair hoped it would deter — or at least punish — the “phonies” who claim fake military medals for personal gain or recognition at the expense of real veterans.

But concerns the law infringes on free speech by essentially banning lying, propelled the law to the Supreme Court. Justices hypothesized upholding the legislation could lead to laws against lying about affairs, diplomas and degrees — or even trying to impress the opposite sex — during a February 22 hearing.

A California elected official, Xavier Alvarez, is at the center of the case. One of the first prosecuted under the law, Alvarez had claimed receiving the Medal of Honor. Though he passed himself off as a wounded veteran, Alvarez never served in the military.

Doug, a Vietnam War veteran, acknowledges the “slippery slope” arguments critics make about the law’s effect on free speech. While veterans’ organizations back the act, civil liberties groups and media outlets, including the Associated Press, oppose Stolen Valor.

Putting aside the free speech issue, the problem of falsified military records and decorations is widespread and undermines the achievements of real veterans, he said. Doug has come across about 2,000 cases in a decade and works with law enforcement to track down the worst offenders.

Still, he’d prefer working on completing his database of military award recipients (something the Defense Department has repeatedly declined to do) instead of debunking fake heroes. Though often portrayed as a passionate hunter of liars, Doug makes clear his frustration with his unofficial side job.

“I do this because I have to, because my work is [creating] a database of these heroes, but when I run into and encounter these phonies, you have to deal with them,” he said. “I am annoyed because I want to spend all my time writing the history of these heroes.”

Discussing the families he’s helped by confirming past military achievements, Doug brightens. That’s what he takes joy in, not debunking posers. He estimates spending about 3 percent of his time tracking down liars and the rest on the database and a personal website, Home of Heroes, devoted to the real deal.

And while the couple stands steadfast behind Stolen Valor as constitutional and necessary, they admit reservations. Both worry the intensifying spotlight on embellished military achievements casts doubt on real veterans — a seemingly unavoidable consequence of the issue.

“To me, more than anything it places suspicion on real veterans and heroes,” Doug said. “If every other dollar in circulation is counterfeit, you start looking at all bills more closely. When you do meet somebody wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, [we worry] the first thing you think of is: Is he a phony?”