WASHINGTON - The Pentagon plans to establish a searchable database of military valor awards and medals, hoping for a technological fix to the problem of people getting away with lying about earning military honors.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said details have yet to be worked out, but the intention is to have a digital repository of records on a range of valor awards and medals going back as far in history as possible.
The move is in response to a June 28 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a law making it a crime to lie about receiving the Medal of Honor and other military decorations. An authoritative database would make it easier to check on award claims, and perhaps would deter some who would make false public claims.
The high court ruled that the 2006 Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment.
Veterans organizations and some in Congress have long argued that the Pentagon needs such a database. As recently as 2009 the Pentagon argued that it would be too costly and could pose Privacy Act problems. It also argued that any government database would be incomplete because a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed millions of personnel records, including those citing medals and awards, and that even a complete database would do little to reduce the number of false award claims.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., which had expressed sharp disappointment in the Supreme Court ruling, believes that publicizing the false claims of military valor can be an effective deterrent to others.
VFW spokesman Joe Davis said Tuesday that his group welcomes the Pentagon's new approach.
"The cost is minimal compared to the verifiable proof it provides to honorable service members, veterans and all their families," Davis said.
Little said no final decisions have been made about the type of government database that would be created. He said the goal would to have it include information not only about recipients of the Medal of Honor, which is the nation's highest military award, but also those who hold other decorations for valor, such as the Silver Star and Bronze Star.
"There are some complexities involved in looking back into history," Little said. "We would obviously hope to be able to go as far back as possible, but we also want there to be integrity in the data. So these are factors that are being weighed, and we're in the process of exploring those options. So the door is open."
Members of Congress, meanwhile, are taking their own steps to address the problem of fraudulent claims.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who served in Vietnam as a Marine officer, announced Tuesday that he will introduce legislation which could bring criminal penalties to any individual making a false claim to have served in the military or to have been awarded a military medal or decoration in order to "secure a tangible benefit or a personal gain."
"Profiting from the misrepresentation of military service or the award of a decoration or medal for personal gain undermines the value of service and is offensive to all who have stepped forward to serve our country in uniform," Webb said.