WASHINGTON – Lawmakers on Wednesday criticized the Defense Department for failing to create a searchable database of medals recipients, a potential solution to identifying and prosecuting people who falsely claim to have received the honors.
Witnesses from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a privately run medals database joined GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee investigating the matter, in rejecting assertions by Pentagon officials about major improvements in military record keeping.
Anyone making false claims of receiving military honors could be prosecuted under a 2006 law, the Stolen Valor Act. Conviction could mean imprisonment for up to six months, or up to a year for false claims of receiving the Medal of Honor. The Supreme Court is considering whether the law is constitutional.
The House hearing focused on military records, which are maintained by individual services and the National Personnel Records Center in the St. Louis area. Witnesses representing the military services said there are searchable, computer databases of military records, but not one dedicated to medals.
"We are fundamentally failing to fulfill this mission" of identifying false claims, Chaffetz said. "This has gone on far too long. It's not fine. It's not working. Why can't we create a database of what medals they earned? It's totally unacceptable."
James Nierle, president of the Navy's Board of Decorations and Medals, said that "in a perfect world ... to have those in a database would be of some benefit." He said the question is whether the cost is worth the benefit.
Chaffetz said it would be. That view was endorsed by C. Douglas Sterner, curator of the Military Times "Hall of Valor," which maintains a private medals database, and Joseph Davis, director of public affairs for the Washington office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.
The congressman said he's concerned with those making false public claims of receiving medals, "not a guy in some bar trying to impress a woman."
Citing figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general, Chaffetz said there were 78 arrests from stolen valor investigations between Jan. 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2011. The arrests generated more than $10 million in restitution, and roughly $5.4 million in administrative savings and recovery of taxpayer dollars.
Sterner said a military awards database is achievable because it mainly involves data entry from several military records sources. He said he's been entering records into his database from Navy index cards, and he held up a thick book with paper records of those who served in a particular military unit. He said those records include information on medals awarded and the data simply had to be entered digitally.
Davis also said such a database is possible, given the millions of available records and duplicates at National Archives facilities.
The longer the delay "will only make the task more difficult," he said.
Sterner's database did not save Chaffetz from some embarrassment when he invited cameras and reporters to watch him pin medals on an elderly Korean War veteran in June. The veteran said his Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star were awarded belatedly, and he asked Chaffetz to present them to him publicly. After the ceremony took place, Sterner and others raised questions about the medals and the Pentagon confirmed to Chaffetz in December that they were not authentic.
Lernes Hebert, director of the Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management system in the Defense Department, said the individual services computerized their records at different times, starting with the Army in 1992 and ending with the Air Force in 2004. He said those needing access to the computerized records, including law enforcement agencies, have a "fast and efficient means" to verify military decorations.
But he acknowledged "verification of paper or microfiche records is more time consuming, as these records must be located and reviewed to determine decorations and awards conferred."
He said 16 million to 18 million Army and Air Force personnel files were destroyed in a 1973 fire at the national records center.
Col. Jason Evans, adjutant general of the Army, acknowledged it could take six months or more for the service branch to confirm whether an individual received a valor award.
The senior Democrat at the hearing, Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts, said, "If there was a will, the Department of Defense would find a way to do it."