Why Is The Pentagon Unable To Keep Awards Records?

Lawmakers and Justices want a military medals database, but the Pentagon calls that 'impracticable.'

A member of the U.S. military holds the Medal of Honor presented by Barack Obama during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Why the Pentagon is unable to keep complete and accurate records about former veterans' receiving the nation's highest military honors is a question currently on the minds of lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and experts.

The faulty records tidbit was buried in Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in the high court's ruling that a law to punish individuals who lie about getting military citations is unconstitutional.

In striking down the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, aimed at punishing liars who insult the nation's most-decorated war veterans, Kennedy states that the Defense Department lacks a comprehensive database of Medal of Honor winners.

"Without verifiable records, successful criminal prosecution under the Act would be more difficult in any event," Kennedy writes in the meaty decision.

[Photos: At the Supreme Court.]

"A Government-created database could list Congressional Medal of Honor winners," Kennedy writes. "Were a database accessible through the Internet, it would be easy to verify and expose false claims."

The U.S. solicitor general told the high court Congress and the Pentagon in 2008, "investigated the feasibility of establishing a database," the justice writes. According to Kennedy, they concluded such a database "would be impracticable and insufficiently comprehensive."

For the U.S. military, one of the largest organizations globally with one of the largest budgets, the lack of such a sacred list begs the question, as one government information policy expert put it: "How hard is it to keep a list?!"

But Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez says all four armed services are "able to verify the recipients of the Medal of Honor."

“Each military service migrated to digitized official military personnel files during the 1990s and early 2000s, which include the ... documents detailing military decorations and awards conferred,” Lainez says. Records that have yet to be digitized are housed at either the National Personnel Records Center or the National Archives, but some of the records kept at the latter were destroyed in a 1973 fire, she says.

Still, one senator wants answers and he is pressing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to take action.

"One thing is indisputable—when questions about the validity of an individual's claims or awards documentation are raised, the United States military should be able to expediently verify the details of that individual's military service, and any honors awarded to that service member," Sen. John Tester, a Montana Democrat, writes in a letter to Panetta. "I am aware of a number of instances in which that is simply not the case."

Tester asks the Pentagon to explain how much awards data it collects, how complete the records are, and how the department verifies alleged awards documentation it receives.

Congressional sources say lawmakers are ready to push for votes on a bill introduced shortly after the high court shot down the 2005 Stolen Valor Act that would replace the former law.

The new measure, rolled out by Nevada GOP Rep. Joe Heck, would make it a crime for individuals to "benefit from lying about their military service, record, or awards," according to a statement released by his office.

Among other reasons, the Supreme court shot down the 2005 law after the six judges determined it violated the Constitution's protection of free speech.

The Heck bill is designed to avoid running afoul of the Constitution, according to the statement, because "it does not attempt to limit speech."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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