Man on a mission to uncover every US military award recipient

Veterans Voices

Silver Star awards like this are presented to members of the United States Military for valor. (Credit: KDVR)

PUEBLO, Colo. (KDVR) — A Colorado man has spent the last two decades compiling a database of every US military member to earn the most prestigious awards for valor, and his hard work has led to some big surprises.

“I had no idea. No Idea,” said Mark DeVille, an Army veteran living in Florida who was dumbfounded when a coworker told him to search his name on the internet.

“And it came up recipient of the Silver Star and I said, ‘Well, that’s not me.’ And he said, ‘No, go ahead and read it.’ So I read it and I was like, ‘Wow, that is me,'” DeVille said.

Turns out, DeVille had earned one of the highest honors. for valor in combat, and never even knew it.

Those surprises are the reason Doug Sterner spends 16 hours a day sitting at his computer, compiling the largest private database of military honorees in the country. The results are posted on his website, Home of Heroes, where he’s documented more than 275,000 recipients of military honors.

“It feels very good,” Sterner said.

For more than two decades,  he’s rifled through thousands of files, folders and documents, tracking down what he calls “forgotten valor.”

“I thought well it would be an impossible task, I said it can’t be done. But I’m an old Army combat engineer. Ask us to do something impossible, we will try,” Sterner said, For him, it’s personal.

“I wanted to recall the heroism of one of my friends. He was killed in action two months after I came home from Vietnam, and (he) was awarded a Silver Star. He was my closest friend. And I determined that he would never be forgotten,” Sterner said.

But he didn’t want any military heroes forgotten. He knew millions of military records had been damaged or destroyed over the years,  but he’s combed through the National Archives, the Navy Yard and a military library in College Park, Maryland, and he’s located duplicate records. He’s doing the kind of research many assume has already been completed by the military.

In some cases, the Pentagon hasn’t been able to track down the award recipients in the past. And in some rare cases, the recipients don’t want the award, and don’t want anyone to know.

“When you get a medal for heroism, it’s not something you want to talk about. That medal that you got represents the worst day of your life. And that’s why they’re lost to history,” Sterner said.

Lost to history is exactly how it seemed Mark DeVille’s story would end. He was involved in a 45 minute shootout at the DMZ 37 years ago, as a Russian man attempted to defect across the border.

“He crossed the line and he was chased by North Koreans,” DeVille said,

DeVille and his unit saved the defector’s life – an act of bravery that earned him the third highest award for valor. Which he only discovered, when that internet search led him to Sterner’s online database. Believe it or not, his squad had been awarded the Silver Star 21 years ago, but no one in his unit could locate DeVille. Finally, Sterner’s research connected all the dots.

“I think he’s the hero,” DeVille said, praising Sterner’s hard work.

Sterner estimated there are still 150,000 names that need to be added to his database. To search his records for the name of a loved one, visit the Home of Heroes website.

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