Veterans History Project Medal Controversy: Fraud or Clerical Error?

Veterans History Project buttonThe Veterans History Project’s web sites posts stories from its collection. An independent Medal of Honor watchdog fact-checks the recipients listed on the Project’s web site against the official records. Watchdog finds discrepancies, notifies Project. Vets History Project scrubs the bad records. Investigates. Is this a case of Lie-induced Nausea or Unfortunate Clerical Error?

Test yourself. Quick: Which of these is the true Medal of Honor? the Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal or the Medal of Honor (Air Force)?

This week, MSNBC reported that the Veterans History Project (VHP) took down listings of veterans whose reports receiving the Medal of Honor were false. And here’s the tricky bit. Were those listings fraud? Exaggeration? Error?  Doug Sterner, who operates an independent web site honoring those who have received the Medal of Honor, fact-checked the Veterans History Project‘s site and database and found the errors and reported it to the VHP. The Project notes that many of the false listings are due to clerical errors.

The accusation: “Gross Negligence”

Doug Sterner’s efforts are devoted to debunking false claims to receiving medals—and honoring the known recipients of the medals. He shared his findings with John Hoellworth, veteran Marine and writer for Marine Corps Times. Both Hoellworth and Sterner have worked to debunk false claims to military honors. Sterner tells MSNBC:

“Over the last 10 years, I’ve had to deal with hundreds of these people on a regular basis.” […]  “I try not to get too involved in these things because my real deal is to tell the story of the real heroes, but when the fakers come up, they have to be dealt with.”


Sterner is one force behind new legislation called the Stolen Valor Act. From Hoellworth’s Marine Corps Times story:

Sterner, a Vietnam veteran who was a driving force behind recently enacted legislation setting harsh punishments for those who claim unearned awards, said 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.” [Read More]

What Sterner sees as a nausea-inducing “virtual epidemic of former service members inflating their war records and lying about their honors” might not be attributable to malicous intent. The Vetereans History Project spokseman Larry Raymond told MSNBC that

the erroneous Medal of Honor listings [are] “largely the result of innocent mistakes,” such as transcription errors or faulty recollections.

But Sterner says that the rate of errors he saw were “gross negligence.”

For a government-sponsored operation with a small staff, and based largely on the efforts of volunteers, how can accuracy be guaranteed?

LOC’s response: We are “a supplement, not substitute for, the historical record”

The Veterans History Project has issued a statement in response:

Statement by the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center

Recent media coverage has portrayed veterans who have donated interviews to the Veterans History Project (VHP) at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center as having made “fraudulent” claims regarding the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Veterans History Project (PL 106-380) is a congressionally mandated, public-participation oral history project to gather and preserve the personal wartime recollections of veterans. Its objective is to build a body of personal histories, housed in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, which illuminate the human element and further enrich our own understanding of Americans who have served in 20th- and 21st-century conflicts.

It is not an official military record archive and is intended only to supplement, not substitute for, the historical record. As such, the VHP, which currently houses more than 50,000 oral histories and collections, does not verify the accuracy of accounts that are provided to the project.

VHP periodically verifies collections that reference the Medal of Honor, which are a matter of widely accessible public records, and we have enhanced our internal systems to help ensure the accuracy of future Medal of Honor recipients. However, our review of these most recent claims indicates that there has been no intent whatsoever to provide false information.

Releasing the names of honorable individuals gratuitously and wrongfully as having misrepresented the truth does them a disservice, and undermines this effort to preserve important, personal stories of war that otherwise would have been lost.

At the LOC blog, Matt Raymond elaborates on how mixups can occur by providing one example.

The truth is, in investigating the 24 cases in question, we have no indication to believe the errors were anything but innocent.  For instance, many of those veterans were awarded the Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal by the government of South Vietnam.  But somewhere in the chain of information, whether in transcription or database entry, it was inadvertently shortened to “Medal of Honor.”


And here’s an image of the part of theVeteran Biographical Submission form (from the Electronic Forms download page) where the dastardly “fraudulent” deed—or the innocent mistake—originates. Fill in the blank:

image

If the veteran doesn’t recall accurately, or someone else is writing down the information and gets it wrong, or if it’s difficult to read the handwriting, or if words are transposed or mis-read while entering this information into the VHP database, the outcome will be wrong.

You can submit this form electronically; it’s a PDF document that allows for text entry. You can print out a clean, legible copy or save the PDF document and include it as part of your submission; this will skip one processing step (well, at least copy and paste is easier than re-typing it all).

In the realm of this small branch of the government, this is not a matter for an Audit Department of a company like Ernst & Young. Frankly, I’d rather spend the budget money on benefits for wounded vets who’ve served in Iraq & Afghanistan.

Though the VHP has now instituted extra tests to ensure accuracy in the case of Medal of Honor recipients, I hope that the volunteers who’re concerned about accuracy can muster an effort to help with periodic fact-checks.

Coming up: A post about the Veterans History Project, with notes about how they do what they do, based on the presentation that VHP staffer gave this past April to the Southwest Oral History Society meeting at Cal State Fullerton.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on September 22, 2007 in • Online Oral History CollectionsOral history in the newsVeterans History Project
4 CommentsPermalink

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Comments

Check out the LOC page for Joseph B. Murphy who claims DSC, other awards and Special Forces Status, as well as claims to having been a POW at: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/29411 Then watch the 37 minute video where he describes being Jackie Kennedy’s body guard after JFK’s assasination, multiple covert missions into the USSR, and details his “capture, torture, and amazing escape”. Then tell me this is a data entry error. there will be many similar such obvious fraud in the project announced in the coming weeks as we verify records.
  I agree that money needs to be allocated to the vets who truly need help. Yesterday’s bust of eight such fakers in Seattle, accomplished because of work by myself, Chuck and Mary Schantag and MOSTLY B.G. Jug Burkett, revealed 1.4 MILLION $ in VA fraud. Spending $6 - $8 million for a complete and accurate national database would exposed hundreds, if not thousands of such cases. So, is that a wise investment?

Doug Sterner  on 09/22  at  05:21 PM

Hi Doug—Here’s what I’m trying to find out.

First, and unrelated to what you say here, thanks for pointing out the discrepancies in the collection. That’s a valuable service.

So. There are people who contribute to the Veterans History Project who are not (just) veterans but, deep down, are fabulists. Boo on them.

What next?

1. Does the exception invalidate the rule? Does the presence of the submission you linked to render all the other submissions invalid? I’m not trying to be snarky or flip here. Thinking in scientific or engineering terms, it’s important to ensuring a good quality data set. What do you do about the outliers? 

2. Whose responsibility is it to point to, and prune, the bad apples? The Veterans History Project claims that it’s not their responsiblity. Says so in the FAQ in answer to this question:

“Does the Veterans History Project verify the stories it receives?”

The Library of Congress does not verify the accuracy of these accounts. The opinions expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewee only and are made available to the public with his or her express consent.

I went to Archive.org’s Wayback Machine for the Veterans History Project FAQ, to see how long that Q & A has been part of the FAQ. The Wayback Machine lets you see each iteration to a web page, and when changes were made.

It is not in the Feb 13 2005 edition (1st version of page; 3rd iteration of page collected by Wayback Machine)
It is in the March 20 2005  (2nd version of page; 4th iteration collected).

So LOC addressed the issue almost from the start of the time that the Project had a web presence. I’m relieved to see that it wasn’t added belatedly, in response to your queries about veracity of certain medals.

3. How might this news event change what a volunteer does in collecting (or recollecting) stories to submit to the Veterans History Project? Will it lead to a chilling effect? I’d hate to see anyone come to this conclusion: “OMG, they’re now busting people for fraudulent claims to medals and stuff, and if I write something down wrong, it’ll be jail time. No thank you. I’ll keep my head down and focus on something else.”

4. Since there is so much volunteer labor that goes into the creation of the Veterans History Project, should the occasional cross-checking and verification of veterans biographical data be a worthwhile volunteer effort? i.e., when will you be checking the collection again? 6 months? A year?

5. As to spending $6-8 mil on a database, I dunno. My dog in this hunt is what Joe or Jane Computer User can do with recording equipment and older family members. Record the conversation—and then what? is well suited to the Veterans History Project if the family member is a veteran. The Library of Congress is collecting, and they’ll do the work of preserving it. Cool.

Your dog in this hunt is much different. “Veteran + Valor” is your initial condition, and ensuring veracity about same leads you to propose databases that cost multiple millions of dollars. Well, yeah, I can see your point, but before agreeing, I must first overcome a blanket suspicion of other government-sponsored databases and their inherent unverifiability and lack of recourse for those who find themselves listed within them (TSA, anyone?). So I’m not going to go there, Doug. From a strictly mathematical case, tho, I can see how your Seattle VA example has a cost north of $1 million, and so uncovering 7 more similar would make the database pay for itself.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 09/26  at  07:54 AM

Susan,
I’ll answer these as you wish but I wanted to check to see if you had received the email I sent in response to your recent email. In that I had answered many of these questions. If you did not receive my reply, let me know and I’ll resend.

Doug Sterner  on 09/26  at  08:48 AM

To D Sterner , I read the article about you the other day and I think it’s great . Perhaps you can help me find out about one loudmouth that I met up with several years ago by the name of Robert N Rutstein . More specifically to get a hold of his records from the Army And Marine Corps . Especially concerning his claims to being a Ranger which I have reason to be believe are exaggerated at best . Thanks . Alex B

Alex Botero  on 05/14  at  09:13 AM

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