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Defending True Soldiers

A Vietnam vet and his wife expose medal-wearing impostors

Pam Sterner and her husband, Doug, were living in Colorado in 2004 when she overheard him talking on the phone to an FBI agent. Doug, a two-time Bronze Star recipient for his service during two combat tours in Vietnam, was six years into compiling a Hall of Valor — a verified list of the tens of thousands of Americans who have received a military award above the Bronze Star.

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Doug and Pam Sterner in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C

Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan/Wonderful Machine

Doug and Pam Sterner in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

As Pam homed in on the conversation, Doug and the G-man were discussing a brazen case of stolen valor: A U.S. Army private had recently bragged to his hometown newspaper that he'd earned two Silver Stars, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Somalia, and Iraq — none of which was true. Because the pretender had not worn any false decorations, however — an illegal act — the Army was powerless to file charges against him.

"I had just been assigned to write a policy paper for a college course," Pam recalls. "By the time Doug got off the phone, I had decided to do it on this loophole that let phony heroes slip through the cracks."

Pam's paper, titled "Stolen Valor," became the blueprint for the Stolen Valor Act (SVA), which President George W. Bush signed into law on December 20, 2006. The act made it a crime — punishable by up to a year in prison and/or a fine — to claim, verbally or in writing, an unearned military decoration.

Mission accomplished, right? Not quite.

In the five years since the SVA's passage, opponents have attacked it, arguing that inflating (or outright fabricating ) one's military deeds is free speech — and thus safeguarded by the Constitution. Some courts have agreed, and the law may eventually wind up before the Supreme Court for a ruling on its constitutionality.

Doug finds that First Amendment argument bogus. "Stolen valor isn't a crime of lying," he says; "it's one of impersonation. There's a huge leap from the harmless 'That dress makes you look thin' to the heinous 'I was wounded in Iraq.' "

Doug redoubled his efforts in 2005, when he learned that a poseur had stolen his best friend Jaime Pacheco's 1972 Silver Star citation and claimed it as his own. By 2008, Doug had singlehandedly cataloged 130,000 awardees (and digitized nearly 50,000 of them). That's when The Military Times came to his aid with financing. "Now I have help," he says. "And hope."

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