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One woman's persistence to honor military heroes

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 2:02 PM EST, Tue February 21, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pam Sterner made the law a mission
  • "It was much tougher than I had expected," she said
  • Her husband created a database of medal winners

(CNN) -- Pueblo, Colorado bills itself at the "Home of Heroes," the only city with four living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the highest award for combat bravery and sacrifice. Former local resident Pam Sterner and her husband, Doug, were behind the grassroots effort to get community leaders to formally recognize these military heroes.

It was only the start of the 53-year-old woman's journey to protect their heritage of service that has taken Pam Sterner to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices will debate a federal law she helped create, draft, and sell to often skeptical congressional lawmakers. The law is the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to falsely make a verbal, written, or physical claim to a military award or decoration. The court will hear arguments Wednesday in this free speech dispute, involving a California lawmaker who lied in office about earning the Medal of Honor.

"It was much tougher than I had expected, I thought this law was bipartisan, and would be a shoo-in," Sterner told CNN of her years-long efforts. "Despite all that I still would have taken this on, I was just a little naive at the start."

Sterner is not lawyer, and never served in the military, but her husband did two tours in Vietnam and now advocates for veteran rights on his website www.homeofheroes.com. The couple has also been long involved in helping ferret out military medal frauds, working out of their home, often with their own money. That was the inspiration for the Stolen Valor Act, which began almost by accident.

Pam Sterner works at a Washington non-profit, and also performs as a ventriloquist with her partner Otis. She had returned to college at middle age at Colorado State University as a political science major. While pondering a class assignment in 2004, she happened to overhear her husband talking to an FBI agent about a man profiled in a newspaper, falsely claiming to have won the Medal of Honor.

"Doug was exasperated and said there's nothing we do about these fakes, based on existing policy, which is Title 18 of the U.S. Code" of criminal procedure, recalled Sterner. "I said it was about time someone did something about this. And I decided right there I would."

She told her professor she would write her paper about these impostors and then go further: transform it into law. "These fakes had slipped through the cracks of the law, and (that) was not the intent of the original law. I felt everyone who lied about this should be punished, not those that just committed monetary fraud or similar crimes. My professor said good intentions were not enough. I had to sell it and explain why people should care."

Step one was a meeting with a local congressman, which did not go well. Pam Sterner then called on newly-elected Rep. John Salazar (D-Colorado). The military veteran was instantly sold on the idea. His staff work for months with Sterner and others to draft the legislation and make sure it met legal scrutiny.

That was when frustration set in. Pam Sterner is a lifelong Republican but her congressional sponsor is a Democrat, who after three terms in Congress is now Colorado's Agriculture Commissioner. Sterner says Republicans who controlled Congress were not too eager to let a freshman Democrat in a key political swing district like the Colorado Third get political mileage out of a supposedly bipartisan bill. The Stolen Valor legislation hung up in committee for months.

"It took awhile, but we had great support eventually," said Salazar, speaking by phone from his Colorado ranch. "Pam and Doug went beyond the call of duty to make it happen, they were instrumental."

Pam Sterner earned a special school fellowship to visit Washington for her project and also helped raise funds to personally march the halls of Congress. Using one-on-one time with representatives, it was a strategy that worked surprisingly well.

"Pam is not some slick lobbyist, she's a straight shooter from Pueblo who just talked common sense," said her husband. "She always believed one person can do almost anything. And once the congressmen heard from her personally, they supported her. On this she succeeded beyond her dreams."

Pam Sterner's persistence finally paid off in 2006 when she was on hand to watch Congress easily pass S. 1998, the Stolen Valor Act. It was only after the Justice Department began prosecuting fake heroes that the legal challenges began, on free speech grounds.

"This is a narrow bill, it deals with something Congress specifically decided needed to be addressed," she said. "To me it's not a free speech issue, it's a fraud issue. When someone devalues the bravery of other rightful heroes, it devalues everyone."

She cites as her inspiration a quote from President George Washington, who created the Purple Heart for those military members who have "given of his blood in the defense of his homeland."

"Should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them, they shall be severely punished," said Washington.

Pam Sterner worries if the Supreme Court overturns the law, it would only make it easier for military frauds to ride on the backs of others' bravery. "I'd be heartbroken if we lost. The problem would escalate, I'm sure of that."

The Sterners next mission: to secure a government-funded national database of all medal citations, making it easy for the public -- employers, voters, family, almost anyone -- to easily check who has received what. Privacy concerns have blocked previous efforts.

Doug Sterner's own comprehensive database has been his obsession in recent years. Working on his own time and with his own money, his lists are routinely used by the FBI. The database was recently bought by the Military Times, and he now devotes his efforts to keeping it up to date and comprehensive. Both he and his wife remain modest over their efforts.

"I was glad I could play a small part in preserving the honor of our military heroes," she said, "so that those who would try to lie about it or benefit from it are exposed for what they are."

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