Military struggles to identify false valor, lacks award-recipient database

Bronze Star Medals Bronze Star Medals Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

House representatives admonished the U.S. military at a congressional hearing Wednesday for its inability to build a searchable online database of service members who have received medals or decorations.

This lack of available public information has come under increased scrutiny in recent days because of a growing number of people who have lied about obtaining military honors for personal gain.

The Stolen Valor Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, makes it a federal crime to lie about having received a U.S. military decoration or medal, subject to fines or imprisonment of up to six months, or both.

The law’s constitutionality currently is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court on the basis that it violates citizens’ First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court heard arguments on Feb. 22 from lawyers representing Xavier Alvarez, a California public official who was sentenced to three years’ probation, a $5,000 fine and community service for telling an audience that he had received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Alvarez has never served in the military.

Wednesday’s hearing, put on by the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations, primarily concerned the flip side of the Stolen Valor Act: how to ensure that recipients of valid military decorations are being properly documented. The military currently does not provide a single online database containing searchable records of award recipients, though Military Times, an independent media source not connected to the government, has a partial database.

Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said false valor extends beyond “some guy trying to impress a girl in a bar” to the issue of veteran employment, adding companies seeking to hire decorated former service members have no efficient, trustworthy means to verify that applicants are telling the truth.

“There is absolutely no excuse, in the year 2012, that the entire military personnel system cannot immediately find and correct errors and omissions in military service records,” Joseph Davis, director of public affairs for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in his opening remarks.

Chaffetz blamed a “lack of leadership within the Pentagon” for the military’s inability to properly organize a database of award recipients. “Collectively, the Department of Defense is failing,” he said. “They are failing to recognize the problem. They are failing to recognize the need.”

Part of the problem, according to Congress, is what ranking member Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., called the “decentralizing” of the military. As Chaffetz explained, the subcommittee had requested one witness from the Defense Department and wound up with four, including one representative each from the Army, Air Force and Navy and one from Defense’s personnel office. Each branch of the military has an independent data entry operation.

Though the witnesses from Defense agreed that preventing false valor should be an important goal of the military, they emphasized that trying to incorporate all available information about every service member who has received a decoration into a single virtual database would stretch the department’s resources too thin.

“Any system as massive as the Department of Defense’s personnel system requires constant and vigilant improvement,” said Lernes Hebert, director of officer and enlisted personnel management for Defense.

Hebert added that while online personnel record access is relatively easy for former members of the military, a flaw with the system is “we don’t display in a layman’s simple format how to access these records if you’re not a veteran.”

“A database of awards is an achievable goal, and a worthy one,” Military Times Hall of Valor curator Doug Sterner said during the opening statements of his testimony. “It’s data entry. It’s not rocket science,” he added during questioning.

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