At the funeral of Jan Girando’s father in 2007 at Arlington National Cemetery, dozens of white-gloved troops stood at attention in a light rain in honor of a fallen veteran — even though there was no body, no remains, not even ashes.
Girando’s father, Victor L. Miller, was a World War II veteran who died in 1985 and donated his body to science. Girando remembered him telling her and her siblings about his service, and wondered whether he qualified for a memorial held at Arlington for highly decorated veterans. But Miller left no military records behind.
Miller’s daughter was able to prove that he qualified for an Arlington marker with the help of a decorated Army veteran named Doug Sterner. He had a simple but labor-intesive idea: posting online the names of those who received the military’s top awards for valor.
This morning, Girando, of Overland Park, will join Sterner in Washington, where he will tell Congress that it’s time for the government to enter the Information Age by taking over the searchable database as a means of honoring those who served their country.
Girando’s experience is an example of how the database kept one war hero from being lost to history.
Miller’s children remembered his stories about flying, but they had nothing to prove he was a hero, except his word.
Girando searched for proof for months. She wrote to St. Louis and Washington, D.C., seeking military records, asked politicians to help, and learned about the endless maze of forms like the DD-214.
She found Sterner’s website and asked him to help, too. She didn’t expect a simple email could yield so much happiness.
Sterner, who served two deployments in Vietnam, had started collecting thousands of military records in 1998, placing them into an online database he named Home of Heroes (www.homeofheroes.com
). He’d heard of too many civilians who lied about military medals and too many veterans who couldn’t prove their valor.
He found citation documents on Navy Lt. (jg) Miller. Sterner knew that fewer than 4,000 men in World War II received the Navy Cross. Miller’s name was there.
It was all there. In 1943, records showed that Miller was the pilot of a Curtiss Helldiver bomber, zipping past bullets and enemy planes, dropping his last bomb on a target with deadly accuracy. He sank a Japanese carrier in the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.
Sterner called Girando and notified officials at Arlington.
“My father’s military funeral would not have happened had it not been for Doug,” Girando said. “We almost quit. ... I think a lot of people do quit because it’s so confusing.
“I owe Doug. He’s helping people who don’t know yet that they need his help.”
Heroes and their stories of valor are being lost to history, mired in the paper records, Sterner says.
For example, in 2007 he submitted 24 open-records requests for information on troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who received Silver Stars posthumously. In 22 of the cases, there was no record at all of their award in their official military personnel file in St. Louis.
When Sterner documents an award, he vets them with official military citations, scouring different military sources. So far the number of awards he has documented is impressive. Among them:
• All 3,475 Medals of Honor, along with the equivalent 23 Marine Corps Brevet Medals.
• All 194 Air Force Crosses, and 99 percent of the 6,939 Navy Crosses.
• An estimated 99 percent of the 13,458 Distinguished Service Crosses, along with the official citations of nearly 10,000 of the awards.
• Nearly 7,000 of the 8,000 Distinguished Service Medals, the third-highest military award, with their citations.
For Silver Stars, Sterner has documented 24,365 awards, along with the citations, among an estimated 130,000 Silver Stars, the fourth-highest military award. Off-line, 50,000 more are waiting to be vetted.
He has entered nearly 100,000 awards given since the Civil War. And since 1954, the names of all prisoners of war, and many from the years before.
Sterner tries to identify each person’s hometown, track death and burial data, and include a photograph if it’s available. Hundreds of journalists, FBI investigators, politicians and others have called Sterner asking for his help in learning the truth about someone claiming to be a hero.
In 2010, Sterner helped The Kansas City Star prove that an Army veteran in Kansas, about to be inducted into the Kansas National Guard Hall of Fame, had lied for nearly 30 years about receiving the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star.
Using the exact narrative on the citations hanging in the man’s civilian office, Sterner found the same citations — word for word — but with two other men’s names. The veteran had also said he received two Purple Hearts and that he had been a prisoner of war in Korea for 51/2 months. That was false, too.
The veteran’s nomination to the hall of fame was withdrawn.
But Sterner’s work requires hours of requesting, sorting and gathering information from telephone calls and emails, like a history detective tracking clues, but for no pay.
“It’s all really too much for one person,” Sterner said in an interview.
He nearly closed the database a few years ago. But in 2008, Military Times, owned by Gannett Co., approached him and asked to be his partner. Military Times publishes Army Times, Navy Times and Marine Corps Times.
Sterner’s role now is that of curator. The website is often cited as the largest and most complete unofficial database of U.S. military award recipients.
Sterner said he was ready to talk to politicians, although he was a little nervous about appearing before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
But the idea of the government running the website to honor veterans, to ferret out fakers and to allow families to know their loved ones’ histories, matters too much, Sterner says, to let nerves make him stumble.
“This is a culmination of my life. Our country needs this more than ever, to remember all our heroes and their stories.”
He’ll face the politicians armed with letters of support from the Defense Department, the POW Network, the FBI and regular families, including Girando’s.
Although she eschews travel, she will be there, at Sterner’s side, ready to testify to anyone who asks.
“It’s the least I could do,” she said. “And if this idea grows legs and moves forward, it has the potential of changing how the government keeps its military records. ... He deserves to be heard. And I hope people pay attention and take the next step.
“This would help all of us.”