The Politics of the Medal of Honor

Left of Boom Episode 3: The Politics of the Medal of Honor (ft. Doug Sterner)
Left of Boom Episode 3: The Politics of the Medal of Honor (ft. Doug Sterner)

On this episode, we talk about military awards for heroism. They've been around for almost as long as the republic itself, dating back to George Washington's Badge of Military Merit, first awarded in 1782. They’re granted judiciously and closely policed to retain their value and meaning. The nation's highest award for battlefield heroism, the Medal of Honor, has a mystique all its own. While the lower awards, including the Bronze Star, Silver Star and service crosses, can be awarded simply for acts of exceptional bravery, the Medal of Honor signifies life-saving heroism at great risk to one's own life. In fact, many Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously. To be approved, Medal of Honor accounts must have an eyewitness, and they must meet the most stringent legal standard available: beyond a reasonable doubt. Even so, the process of awarding these medals can be subjective and political, and there are a number of service members who may not have gotten the recognition they deserve, among them names like Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Cpl. Waverly Woodson from World War II. To dive into the history and politics of military heroism, today we're talking to the undisputed foremost expert on the topic: Doug Sterner, creator of the Hall of Valor. And visit for all the news and information you need about the military community.

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The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:

Hope Hodge Seck 00:00

Welcome to another episode of left of boom. I'm Hope Seck, managing editor at Let's talk today about military valor awards. They've been around for almost as long as the republic itself, dating back to George Washington's Badge of Military Merit, first awarded in 1782. Their granted judiciously and closely policed to retain their value and meaning. It's actually a criminal offense to buy and sell military valor awards, and wearing medals you didn't earn as a crime with its own name: stolen valor. The nation's highest award for battlefield heroism, the Medal of Honor, has a mystique all its own. While the lower awards, including the Bronze Star, Silver Star and service crosses, can be awarded simply for acts of exceptional bravery, the Medal of Honor signifies life-saving heroism at great risk to one's own life. In fact, many Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously. To be approved, Medal of Honor accounts must have an eyewitness, and they must meet the most stringent legal standard available: beyond a reasonable doubt. Even so, the process of awarding these medals can be subjective and political. In 1993, President Bill Clinton acknowledged that zero African American servicemembers had been awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. He launched a new review that resulted in the presentation of the medal to seven black veterans. More recently, in 2016, the Pentagon assessed that troops from the post-9/11 wars had received fewer of the most prestigious awards than those in past conflicts, and launched a new review that resulted in more than 57 medal upgrades, and half a dozen new Medals of Honor. And still there are a number of service members who may not have gotten the recognition they deserve. Among them names like Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Cpl. Waverly Woodson from World War II. To dive into the history and politics of military heroism, today we're talking to the undisputed foremost expert on the topic. Doug Sterner was an Army combat engineer in Vietnam, who went on to create the most comprehensive, and for a long time, the only public database of US military valor awards in existence. He continues to curate and compile military awards records today. He gets an enviable number of invitations to the White House, and has published 73 books to date, with more due out by the end of the month. Doug, thanks for being on the show.

Doug Sterner 02:33

Oh, it's good to be on with you Hope. Thank you very much.

Hope Hodge Seck 02:36

So tell me about the first military valor award you ever investigated.

Doug Sterner 02:42

Well, the first military award, of course, was basically the Medal of Honor. There was an award that went back to the American Revolution, the Badge for Military Merit that was established by George Washington. It was a Purple Heart-shaped piece of cloth that we only can find records. being presented three times. But the U.S. military kind of eschewed the medals, you know, the image of the European aristocrats with a chest full of medals. And we tended in the United States to throw off European models and to look down at medals and pooh-pooh them as being something that didn't really matter. During the beginning days of the Civil War, the Navy established the Navy Medal of Honor. And basically, it was established to improve the morale of the Navy. It wasn't really so much of a valor award as an incentive award. The Army followed suit. And from the Civil War until World War I basically it was the only United States military medal.

Hope Hodge Seck 03:45

Well, so what was it about this topic that fascinated you and made you want to devote so much time to investigating these awards?

Doug Sterner 03:54

Well, in 1972, my wife did a special thing for our hometown of Pueblo, Colorado. She rented the city park rides, the City Park Zoo and a bunch of things there and made it free to everybody in Pueblo for one day, and it was a tremendous event, but it lacked a patriotic emphasis. She decided to do it again in 1973. And it was at that time that we learned that Pueblo was the only city in America at that time, there were only 240 living recipients of the Medal of Honor and Pueblo had four of them. And so we started bringing Medal of Honor recipients into the city of Pueblo in 1993. We brought in our four recipients as well as for others we invited as guests in 1995. She brought in 16 Medal of Honor recipients to present awards to 16 of the rescue workers from the Oklahoma City bombing. The following year she brought in another 16 Medal of Honor recipients this time, on March 25, which is National Medal Medal of Honor day, to do school assemblies in all of the every one of the cities K through 12 in the city of Pueblo and of course, also brought in Wayne Newton as our speaker. It was a tremendous event. Well, that interested me for the first time basically, in the Medal of Honor. And I began to research the Medal of Honor. Because if she was gonna keep bringing these heroes to Pueblo, I wanted to know who they were.

Hope Hodge Seck 05:27

Okay, so that was the start for you wanting to know more about these heroes, but what kept you going, this is now decades on, and what made you want to keep learning about these heroes and actually compile their stories?

Doug Sterner 05:42

Well, a couple of things happened. Number one, about 1997 one of my friends Peter Lemon, a Medal of Honor recipient who had been involved in virtually every one of my wife's programs, came to me and he said, Doug, he said, You know more about the Medal of Honor already than anybody. You're wasting your time in the job that you are in. You need to be a historian. You need to do a museum. And I was stupid enough to believe him and left a good paying job. And my wife convinced me to go back to school, to college. And I didn't want to do it. I just did it because she's always right and always gets her way. Go ahead and sign me up because I had left my job. And she came home and she said, okay, she said, What do you want to study? I said, I don't care. And so she came home and said, Well, you're CIS, Computer Information System student. And so that was my introduction first to computers. The following year, I had the privilege of seeing a 25-year dream come true. I got to meet the family of my closest friend who was killed in action in Vietnam. And I have written a story about Jaime Pacheco, one of the last Rangers killed in Vietnam and the family asked me to put it on the internet, which I had sent to a couple people and they never posted it. And I did some research and, you know, six months into my computer education. I said, this can't be that hard. I put Jaime's story on the internet. And I thought, this is pretty easy. Well, Peter Lemon wants me to build a museum. I'll build one online. And so I established the Home of Heroes website, in which I started documenting the citations, the photos and the stories of America's Medal of Honor recipients at that time number you just a little over 3,000.

Hope Hodge Seck 07:38

Can you tell me the story of how you ended up meeting the family of your fallen friend?

Doug Sterner 07:45

Well, Jaime and I, I'm a combat engineer and I'm glad you know that, because I've always said only an Army combat engineer could do the job that I'm doing. God said it's impossible. Engineers say nothing is impossible. Essayons, we will try. But I pulled my last Vietnam missions with a troop ogf 75th Rangers Team 7-5, of which Jaime was a member. And I came March 5. Jamie continued to serve in Vietnam. He was killed in action on May 25. And after his death, I sent a bunch of pictures and things that I had to his wife. She sent me a very nice letter, but I did not want to, to impose at a time like this. For 25 years, my kids knew Jaime as a real person. I always talked about it. And many times I dream that one day I would be standing at Jaime's grave in Hobbs, New Mexico. And young man would walk up to me and say, Who are you? And I would say, Well, I'm Doug Sterner. I was Jaime's closest friend. Who are you? And he would look at me and say, I'm Michael, Jaime's son. When he was killed, he had an 18-month-old son son. Well, in 1996, the 1st Cavalry Division published their annual calendar. And lo and behold, there was a picture on there of Jaime and me on one of my missions with the team. And I launched an effort to try and find the family because I thought they might like to see the calendar. It was unsuccessful. I went to the cavalry reunion that year, it was the 50th reunion for the 1st Cavalry. And some of the Rangers said, Well, we have tried to initiate some kind of contact with Jamie's family. But we heard that the family didn't want any communication. So that's when I dropped it. Six months later, I was sitting in my office, I got a phone call. It was a female voice, and she said Mr. Sterner, I'm Lenay Pacheco, I had never heard the word and we have 25,000 Pachecos in the city of Pueblo. For some reason my heart just slipped into my throat. She said I'm Michael's wife. Michael would like to meet you. And that night I talked with Michael I sent him the booklet that I've written about Jaime. Shortly after Jaime's death, and the family wanted to meet me, they asked me to meet him at Angelfire in New Mexico on Memorial Day, Memorial Day that year, 26 years to the day after Jaime was killed in Vietnam. I walked down to the memorial with Michael, his son on one side, and Jaime's mother on the other side. And the New Mexico media had heard about this. And they came out to do a story and the reporter came walking down the sidewalk. And he looked at Michael and kind of blanched because Michael looked just like his dad. He said, you must be Michael Pacheco. And he said, Well, yes, I am. And then he looked at this little old lady standing to my right. And he said, You must be Mrs. Pacheco, Jaime's mother and she said, Yes, I am. And he looked at me and he said, well, then you must be Doug Sterner. Before I could open my mouth, Jaime's mother looked at him and she said, Yes. Now He's my oldest son. I just about melted right?

Hope Hodge Seck 11:04

Oh, my word. What a moment. Unbelievable. So you so that was your jumping-off point and your database extended pretty quickly past Medal of Honor recipients. How did you make that leap into what would be this massive body of work spanning multiple awards?

Doug Sterner 11:29

I don't know if I'm a good writer, but I'm a prolific writer. And by 2000, my database of Medal of Honor recipients was very, very expansive. And I had a lot of people saying to me, Well, you know, Mr. Sterner, what about my dad who got the Distinguished Service Cross or the Navy Cross, you know, this is not chicken feed. And that's true. You know, the great Pappy Boyington once said, you know, it's just a short drop from being a kick in the butt to a Navy Cross, and l said the only difference between a Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor is the clerk that typed up the paperwork.

Hope Hodge Seck 12:04

There's probably more truth to that than we'd care to think.

Doug Sterner 12:06

Yes. And I thought, well, it would be impossible to do all the Medal of Honor or the service cross recipients 3500 Medals of Honor, yeah, I can do that. How many service crosses are there? Ultimately, I found out there had been about 25,000 in history. And like the good combat engineer I was in my younger days, I said, Well, we will try. And I began expanding my database in 2000 to include the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Air Force Cross, which was easy on the Air Force Cross, there were less than 200. People continued to contact me Well, what about the Silver Star? Well, that's impossible. I have no concept of how many Silver Stars but as I started completing my service crosses about 2000 to 2003. I expand it to start doing the Silver Stars. And amazingly, you know, 17 years later, I can estimate that there have been approximately 130,000 Silver Stars awarded in history, I have identified 107,000 of them, and found and digitized the citations for 70,000 of those. So it's not impossible.

Hope Hodge Seck 13:22

Darn near, sounds like. That's just remarkable. So what are the greatest lengths that you've gone to to verify and document a particular individual's award?

Doug Sterner 13:33

I've had any number of things. I've had one gentleman one time that submitted his Air Force Cross citation. And official, DoD and US Air Force press releases, and he was as phony as a $3 Bill and I struggled with that one for a month. I finally turned him over to the FBI. So you know, I don't just take a citation and take it for granted. But a lot of times, especially since the end of the Vietnam War, these award citations become lost to history. I have identified approximately 40 individuals who I believe got Silver Stars in the October 1993, Mogadishu operation that was the basis of the Black Hawk Down movie, right? I FOIA'd them. More than half of them. There was no record of the Silver Star in their OMPF, that's your official military personnel file in St. Louis. And yet, several of them I found Department of the Army general orders very briefly listing them as Silver Star recipients. So it's sometimes a real challenge, and it's especially so from 1975 to present to identify these in ways that are record keeping. It sounds strange, but none of the military services really track the awards they're giving out. Early in the Global War on Terrorism, I was going round and round with DoD on this. And the Baltimore Sun did an article on it. And DoD told him well, they didn't have a list of all the Silver Star recipients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because they couldn't find them all.

Hope Hodge Seck 15:17

That boggles my mind.

Doug Sterner 15:19

It boggles my mind. And again and again and again. It's just a simple matter of they give the award and then they don't record it. And this has been a problem primarily for the last 50 years in the war on terrorism. It's horrible. DoD sold a lot of our soldiers for instance, on this whole concept of silent professionals. Kind of an oxymoron when you think that the silent professionals, the way to recognize them is they they write a book. In World War II, they had many guys who did very classified operations. Chick Parsons, running several range into Philippine Islands got two Distinguished Service Crosses and the Navy Cross. And they were classified, but his name was down there, he was identified. But in wars post 1975 there has not been that level of record-keeping.

Hope Hodge Seck 16:14

That just is completely counterintuitive to me and fascinating. I do want to ask. So in 2012, Congress passed new legislation, making it a criminal offense to wear unearned medals and awards. So tell me about the Stolen Valor phenomenon, what it is, and how you began investigating those types of offenses.

Doug Sterner 16:36

I began it almost within a year after launching my website, because I launched my website in 1998. I would have people that would send me an email and say, you know, Mr. Sterner, you're not listing, my dad or my uncle or my husband as a Medal of Honor recipient and he got the Medal of Honor in XYZ war and because Medal of Honors have been well documented. In 1917 there was a change in the military award system and a pension was granted to recipients of the Medal of Honor or a stipend. With that, then Congress required that the military services keep a roll of honor listing all Medal of Honor recipients. They didn't do that for any other award. So I had a complete list of every legitimate Medal of Honor recipient, but I kept getting these coming in. Somebody would show me a picture of somebody speaking at Memorial Day wearing a medal of honor and he was phony. And I'm end up working with FBI Special Agent Tom Cottone, he was the FBI lead agent for Stolen Valor cases, and I would get a tip I would pass it on to him. It was just a regular occurrence. In about 2004, we had a case out of Arizona, a young man who was holding up picture frame with the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars and several other awards. And they did a page and a half on this guy in Arizona, the first big hero of the war in Iraq, he was involved in the shooting of Uday and Qusay, he captured Saddam Hussein. And all of these crazy stories. He also claimed to have been involved in the Mogadishu operation, and he was phony. But we couldn't do a thing to him because up to that time, the only thing you could be prosecuted for was physically wearing a medal that you had not earned. You could hold it up. We had a course of an Illinois court judge who had two Medals of Honor hanging on the wall of his courtroom that told people he earned those in Vietnam and he used it on his campaign notices, and he could not be touched. He could not be forced to resign because he had broken no law. And late 1994, my wife was a a student, she went back to college too in old age, and she had a paper she had to write for a class that was policy analysis and she overheard me talking with Tom Cottone on the phone about this particular case. And after the conversation, she asked me about I explained it to her and she said, that's what I'm going to do my paper on. And I'm going to turn it into a law. I'm not just going to write a paper. I'm going to turn it into a bill and Tom Cottone and I just laughed, not out loud because she'd kill me. I mean, you know, how naive can you be that you're gonna write a school paper and turn it into a law, but like the good friends we are, we patted her on the back and said, Go girl, and, you know, didn't want to stomp on her dream. And lo and behold, a year and a half later, Congress passed and president George W. Bush passed the Stolen Valor act that made it unlawful to claim verbally or in writing -- if you put it on your resume -- it was a criminal offense. And so Congress passed that, and President signed it in 2006. Unfortunately, in 2012, the Supreme Court in a split decision ruled that it violated the First Amendment rights of Americans, that you have a First Amendment right to say or wear anything you want. It was kind of heartbreaking. But within two years, Congress almost unanimously passed a revised version. And that's what's in effect now. And basically it says, If you claim or use these medals for financial gain, then you can be prosecuted. It's a much much watered down, and we're not seeing a lot of effectiveness, but at least we got that much.

Hope Hodge Seck 20:32

You and Pam, your wife are quite the power couple, I just have to say. So how many of these Stolen Valor cases would you say you've exposed in the course of your career?

Doug Sterner 20:45

I never kept track. They're not like notches on a pistol You know, they're not something I take pride in. I hate them. But it numbers in the hundreds. Certainly Stolen Valor is something I I hate dealing with. You ruin people's lives. Yeah, maybe they deserve it, but I don't want to be the one that ruins their lives. You know, I had a couple of cases where individuals once exposed, attempted suicide and that really bothered me. In one case the subject did commit suicide. And that always weighed very heavily in my mind. So I take no pride in going after the people that lie. But you know, the other side of the coin is this. There has been far more cases of stolen valor. committed by the United States Army, United States Air Force, the United States Marine Corps, the United States Coast Guard. Every branch of service has committed Stolen Valor, by the very fact that they have failed to document and preserve the stories of our real heroes.

Hope Hodge Seck 21:47

We'll be right back with more from Doug Sterner after this break. Hello, this is Hope Seck from On the Left of Boom podcast, I'm working to bring you conversations with some of the most interesting people I've encountered in the military space. And I hope you enjoy these conversations as much as I do. If you're new to, I invite you to check out the other things we offer to keep the military community informed. You can sign up for free to receive weekly newsletters with information specific to your service. Get breaking news alerts for news and pay updates. Play our daily trivia game, and check out our brand new entertainment newsletter, At Ease. Again, you can find all that right on our site at Okay, now let's get back to the show. Let's talk about the politics of the Medal of Honor. What are some trends you've observed from conflict to conflict in terms of how the medal is awarded, and to whom?

Doug Sterner 22:44

Well beginning with the Civil War, the largest number of Medals of Honor were actually awarded for actions that involved the flag, either saving the American flag or capturing the enemy's flag, which causes some people to look at Civil War Medals of Honor and say, Oh, they were giving them away like hotcakes. Well, they really were not. If you captured the flag of the enemy regiment, that was tantamount to capturing the entire regiment, because the regiment rallied around the flag. So when you read that he got the Medal of Honor for capturing the flag of the enemy, read that he got the Medal of Honor for capturing 300, 500, 1,000 men, because in essence, that's what he did. World War I, a lot of it involved machine gun warfare, because World War I was the first war that we really saw extensive use of things like tanks, airplanes and the machine gun. World War II, often it was charging the machine gun nest. And we see a trend in the Korean War, was one of the most brutal in history. In fact, it was the first time that posthumous awards outnumbered awards to living recipients. They're just devastating consequences for heroic actions, Vietnam, of course, we hear the stories again and again, about the guy who jumped on the grenade. And while there were many other types of action, that seemed to be the thing that fit in with the concept of the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War. The War on Terrorism, I'll be honest with you, I don't know what the heck they're doing with them.

Hope Hodge Seck 24:24

And what do you mean by that?

Doug Sterner 24:25

Well, number one, I've consistently been concerned at the lack of Medals of Honor that have been awarded and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of them like Rafael Peralta. I cannot understand how in the world forensics evidence and and stuff like that played such a pivotal role. The case that's dearest to my heart is that of Alwyn Cashe in Iraq, when his Bradley was hit and he and the driver were thrown clear. In the clear he realized that one of the fuel bladders had ruptured and drenched him and his uniform in fuel. The Bradley was on fire. He had men in the back and with a uniform drenched in fuel, he walked into that burning Bradley and stood there while he was being immolated and pulled man after man out of that Bradley, and he died two weeks later from his burns. The most classic case of a Medal of Honor I've ever seen. Last year, I was privileged to go to the Medal of Honor presentation to a friend of mine, who I jokingly sometimes refer to as the Audie Murphy of the GWOT generation. David Bellavia, who you know ... the name of his book, House to House, just kicking butt and taking names. It seems like today we got to the point where we like the Medal of Honor citation that talks about the guy that goes out and saves his buddy. Those things that have kind of a very human touch to them. And we tend to shy away from the stories of the guy that goes in and kicks ass and takes names, which is exactly what Audie Murphy did, which is exactly what David Bellavia did. And we we don't want to realize that, as George Patton said, you know, you don't win more by dying for your country, but by helping the other SOB die for his. Yeah. So we tend to avoid those dramatic citations anymore, the guy that was just a true warrior and just rained hell on the enemy.

Hope Hodge Seck 26:37

That speaks to the subjectivity of the process. And even with the Medal of Honor, which is supposed to be a really strictly objective, fact-based standard, there have been efforts made over the years to re-examine awards and properly recognize people, particularly black Americans and minoritie,s who may have been overlooked. This is part of where that subjectivity may come into play. Are there still systemic or historical inequities you see that need to be corrected?

Doug Sterner 27:10

No, I don't believe so. I think that the reviews -- not a single Medal of Honor black Medal of Honor recipient World War I, not a single black Medal of Honor recipient in World War II, not one Japanese American Medal of Honor in World War II until the reviews of the 1990s Freddie Stowers got it for World War I, and we had seven black recipients from World War II. A little bit later on, two more black recipients from World War I. And then the big upgrade in 2002 that recognized 22 Asian Americans, those changes were needed. I don't want to say that -- The racism is a problem. I think the Vietnam War changed the whole concept of race in the military service and I'm very proud of what we did in Vietnam. That being said, I do find it ironic that there has not been a single black recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, not one. And I looked at the service crosses, and ethnic minorities comprise 24% of all the service crosses -- Navy Cross, Air Force Cross and Distinguished Service Cross -- they've been awarded in the wars on terrorism. But there is two Medal of Honor recipients, one is partly Hispanic and the other who is, well, I'm not exactly sure what his ethnic lineage is. But, you know, it seems to me that ethnic minorities have actually been overlooked in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as far as the Medal of Honor is concerned.

Hope Hodge Seck 28:51

Do you attribute that to anything in particular?

Doug Sterner 28:53

Not really. I don't know what's going on. I really do not believe that it's racial prejudice. I don't think that is an issue in our military. The services and military service has taught the rest of the country how to treat people by the the content of their character, not the color of their skin. So I don't think it's that. I just, I don't understand the whole concept of how War on Terrorism Medals of Honor have been awarded. Especially when I look at the ratios over the year, Silver Star, Service Cross, Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor ratios are actually quite, quite different from was past. DoD has said it because the nature of warfare has changed to some degree. That's true. You know, I'm an old Vietnam veteran, and I wouldn't trade my war for what those guys went through in Iraq and Afghanistan for anything in the world. I think they are our country's new Greatest Generation. But from the battle for Manila in World War II to the battle for Hue City in 1968 to the battle for Fallujah, there is not a whole lot of differences.

Hope Hodge Seck 29:58

So the eyewitness standard has been a big barrier to some people receiving the Medal of Honor. Rafael Peralta perhaps is a particularly good example of that. Do you think that's still the right requirement when it comes to documentation to approve a medal of honor package?

Doug Sterner 30:17

You know, I had kind of an epiphany on Rafael Peralta, I had just gone to Fort Carson to speak to a unit that had just returned from Iraq. And when I got up to speak to them, I said, you know, you guys are my heroes, and I watched him squiggle and squirm and, and, you know, when you call somebody a hero, it's kind of an uncomfortable feeling. You hear people say all the time, I'm not a hero. I just did my job. At the end of my speech, when I got done, the colonel came over to present their coin to me, and he said, you know, gentlemen, ladies said, I want you to give a round of applause to Mr. Sterner. He's a genuine hero and I cringed and I I thought to myself what a hypocrite you are. You're going around telling soldiers all the time that they are your heroes. And you get all uncomfortable when somebody refers to you as a hero. And when I got home, I had a call from a reporter with the San Diego newspaper about Rafael Peralta. And he said, Doug, he said, we just got word that an Army forensics expert said that Rafael Peralta was dead, before he pulled that grenade under his body, he could not have consciously done it. And they're denying him the Medal of Honor. I thought about that for a minute. And that's when I had my epiphany. I said, you know, he may not in that moment, have consciously done it, but Rafael Peralta consciously made the decision to pull that grenade underneath him long before that moment. At some point in his life, he said, in his heart, my comrades are more important than my own life. Therefore his action was instinctive. It changed my whole concept of a hero. Today I believe heroism is a matter of saying I would be willing to give my life for my child, for my wife or my husband, for my comrades. Whatever it is. heroism is not about bravery. Heroes get scared. Heroism is not about dying. Heroism is about putting other people ahead of your life. And when you find something that is bigger, greater, more important than yourself, that you are willing to die for that is heroism. And that's what Rafael Peralta showed in that moment, was the heroism to put others ahead of himself and instinctively do what no one believed he did.

Hope Hodge Seck 32:50

That's powerful. If you could wave a wand and award two or three people the Medal of Honor, I'm guessing one of them is Alwyn Cashe, but who else would you choose? And why?

Doug Sterner 33:01

Alwyn Cashe, obviously. Rafael Peralta, obviously. Gutierrez, Air Force cross, definitely a Medal of Honor. Those are three in particular that I think of the one that I always mentioned most was, in those top numbers was David Bellavia. Fortunately, he got it.

Hope Hodge Seck 33:19

So can you talk about Gutierrez who that is for listeners who don't know?

Doug Sterner 33:25

Well, he was a ground combat controller with the Air Force. And you know, those ground combat controllers just unbelievable the awards that they have racked up. I don't have a citation right in front of me. But basically, his actions on that day were just stunning. Friend of mine, Robert Dorr, who is an Air Force historian, actually did a couple articles on his actions, you know, recommending the Medal of Honor for him. We never saw that. In fact, that was up until you know Chapman finally got his, the Air Force didn't have a Medal of Honor recipient from the war on terrorism.

Hope Hodge Seck 34:03

That's remarkable. So your Hall of Valor database is amazingly complete and it lives on, you can find it at What's left to do in terms of chronicling military awards?

Doug Sterner 34:18

Well, I have compiled, we've got a quarter of a million awards in the Military Times Hall of valor. My goal is to digitize all awards above the Bronze Star. I estimate that to be 425,000 awards, and of them I've identified around 300,000 this year, I just got access to a listing of all the World War II Silver Stars to Army Air Forces. I'll be expanding that though. You know, I think if I have another 10 years left in me, I can maybe get it done. It's important work. Do we have time for a story?

Hope Hodge Seck 34:58

We always have time for a story.

Doug Sterner 35:00

Okay, background: in 2012 I got an email from a young man who said Mr. Sterner, my friends told me to Google myself. And I did. And I found the Military Times Hall of Valor has me for a silver star. I never got a Silver Star. So I looked him up. And I said, Well, you know, in 1986, you were on the Korean DMZ with a young officer and two other guys. And he said, Yeah, that was me. There was an incident there. Most people wouldn't believe that a Silver Star was awarded for action in Korea in 1986. With a defector, all of them are awarded Army Commendation medals, ARC-V. In 2001, they upgraded those ARC-Vs to Silver Stars. And I had the good fortune to meet their commanding officer, Bert Mizusawa who is a US Air Force Academy graduate and now a general and we became friends. And when I got the email from Mark Deville was young man's name. I emailed Bert right away I said, Mark just contacted me said he never got the Silver Star and Bert said, Yeah. When they upgraded him in 2001, they told me to find the guys that had served with me, now this was 15 years earlier, so that we could get their Medals of Honor and I never was able to find Mark. He said, Now I can retire. Well, it made it even more special, was by that time Major General Mizusawa was working in the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. And later that year, they brought all four guys together at the Pentagon, where Mark Deville received the Silver Star that until 2012, he didn't even know he had been awarded. And those are the kinds of things that's the reason why I do the Hall of Valor.

Hope Hodge Seck 36:51

That is a lovely story. Well, Doug, every time I speak to you, I am just fascinated and you're work has absolute meaning and value and power, as that story illustrates. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

Doug Sterner 37:09

It's very nice to talk to you today to help. Thank you for inviting me on.

Hope Hodge Seck 37:15

Thanks for joining us for another episode of Left of Boom. You can check out Doug Sterner's database of military heroes at You can also learn more about Rafael Peralta, Alwyn Cashe, Waverly Woodson, Robert Gutierrez, and many more legendary heroes at We'll have new episodes out regularly, so please hit subscribe, and let us know what you think about the show in the feedback section. And help us out by leaving a five-star review. We also want to hear from you about future episodes. Who do you want to hear from and what military hot topics would you like us to tackle? Let us know by sending us an email at And remember to stay up to date on all the news that matters to the military community every day at

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