Over the past seven years, the Library of Congress has been collecting oral and written recollections of war experiences, through its Veterans History Project. While clearly a worthy endeavor, the history project has apparently turned up more, apparent military frauds--veterans who claim medals they never received, for battlefield exploits that never occurred.
According to Air Force Times, the history program has interviewed 49 former service members who claimed that they earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for military heroism. But only 25 of the individuals are actually listed in the Congressionally-mandated registry of MOH recipients, which was established in 1916.
While it's possible that one or two actual winners of the MOH were never entered in the Congressional registry, the odds of 24 recipients being omitted are decidedly small. Making matters worse, the director of the history project admits that his staff rarely verifies Medal of Honor claims. They make no attempt to validate other awards--such as the Distinguished Service Cross--or verify accounts by veterans who claim they were held as prisoners of war.
Indeed, the potentially fraudulent MOH claims were discovered by two researchers unaffiliated with the history project: Doug Sterner, who maintains an extensive on-line database of valor award winners, and Mary Schantag, who runs the POW Network, a Web site listing U.S. prisoners of war. In addition to the 24 disputed MOH claims, they also found 47 unearned service crosses, and 45 suspect POW claims.
Having some prior experience with oral history programs, we can understand the need to collect veterans' stories before they pass away. And, with roughly 1,000 members of the Greatest Generation expiring every day, time is of the essence. But that doesn't excuse history project's sloppy work in verifying MOH claims. Given the relatively small number of living recipients--and the ready availability of MOH databases--it is relatively easy to separate the heroes from the frauds.
Bob Patrick, Director of the Veterans History Project, said the last review of MOH claims was 18 months ago and "clearly it is time that we do a review again."
Call us underwhelmed. Without the work of Mr. Sterner and Ms. Schantag, it's doubtful that the history project would be conducting another review. Sterner, a Vietnam veteran, told a Marine Corps Times writer that seeing “lies stamped with the seal of authenticity implied by finding these war stories preserved in the Library of Congress makes me want to throw up.” He added that the fraudulent claims call into question the credibility of the all the project’s accounts.
Mr. Patrick claims that accuracy is not the project's primary goal. But that argument misses the larger point: only 3,463 Americans have received the Medal of Honor since the award was created. Those recipients represent the bravest of the brave, and their achievements are sullied by those who falsely claim the medal. According to Mr. Sterner's website, there are only 109 MOH recipients still living. They deserve better, even if it means a little more fact-checking at the Veterans History Project.
As for the phonies, it's still unclear if they will be prosecuted under the 2005 Stolen Valor Act, which provides jail time and a $10,000 fine for individuals who make false verbal, written and physical claims of unearned military awards.
No one can expect the Veterans History Project to verify the awards for all 50,000 veterans who have participated in the program. But, for those who claim the Medal of Honor or a service cross, it is not unreasonable for the project to request written proof, or check the claim against existing databases. Allowing 24 disputed MOH claims to enter a Library of Congress database --with no real effort at verification--is simply inexcusable.