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On November 23, 1984, 30 North Korean soldiers charged into the demilitarized zone in pursuit of a Russian defector. As bullets sliced through the air, Army private Mark DeVille and his squad leaders, there to secure the border, faced open fire to save the defector and surround the enemy. For his bravery, DeVille received the Silver Star Medal—an honor he didn’t know about until visiting the Hall of Valor website in 2013. “I thought it was a mistake,” DeVille says. “So I called Doug.”
A 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran living in Pueblo, Doug Sterner created the database—originally housed on a website called Home of Heroes, it was renamed Hall of Valor when the Military Times began hosting it in 2008—to document every U.S. service member since the Civil War to earn an award above the Bronze Star Medal, the seventh-most-distinguished military medal. Sterner’s mission began in 1994 when his wife, Pam, invited two Medal of Honor recipients from Pueblo back home to attend a Fourth of July festival. Curious, Sterner went looking for more information about the guests, but found that little was publicly available. “It felt,” he says, “like a piece of history was forgotten.”
Since then, Sterner—a property manager until Military Times paid him to research full time—has combed through thousands of papers in the National Archives, Navy Yard, and other military offices to record roughly 300,000 honorees on the Hall of Valor. He believes up to 150,000 are still due their recognition. The exhaustive archive has become a powerful weapon against “stolen valor,” when people lie about their military service. Even the FBI turns to Sterner’s database to identify people who run afoul of the 2013 Stolen Valor Act, a federal law cowritten by Pam that makes it illegal to fraudulently claim military decoration in pursuit of financial gain.
But for Sterner, uncovering fraud is an annoying detour. “It’s not exciting,” he says. “It’s, ‘Oh no, here’s another idiot who’s going to take up valuable time that I could be writing the story of a real hero.’”
Like DeVille’s story: He never received word of his award because, by the time the Department of Defense bestowed it in 2000, the agency couldn’t find the retired soldier due to a clerical error. After learning of his Silver Star, DeVille traveled to the Pentagon in 2014 to receive it. “I like to joke that they could’ve just mailed it to me,” DeVille says. “But truthfully, it meant a lot to reunite with the men I fought with. That wouldn’t have happened without Doug.”