Medals of Honor, Finally

Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama applauds Medal of Honor recipients for actions during the Vietnam War, at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on March 18, 2014.

Twenty-four U.S. Army veterans belatedly received the military’s top award for valor today, years after being denied the Medal of Honor because of bias.

“No nation is perfect, but here in America we confront our imperfections and our sometimes-painful past,” President Barack Obama said at a White House ceremony where the citations of valor were read. “This is the length to which America will go to make sure everyone who serves under our proud flag” gets the recognition they deserve.

Most of the veterans were of Jewish or Hispanic descent and had received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest Army honor, for their actions during combat in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. They were the single largest group of service members to receive the Medal of Honor since World War II, Obama said.

Congress mandated a review of their records in a 2002 law to determine whether prejudice played a role in denying them the Medal of Honor. During that process, several soldiers who were neither Jewish nor Hispanic were discovered to have been improperly passed over and received the award today.

Earlier reviews found black veterans and those of Asian descent who also had been passed over. Their honors were upgraded during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

“Their courage almost defies imagination,” Obama said of the two dozen men  honored, most posthumously, today. When you read the records of these individuals, it’s almost unimaginable the valor they displayed.”

Only three of the soldiers receiving the award today, veterans of Vietnam, are still alive. Sergeant Santiago Erevia, Sergeant 1st Class Melvin Morris and Master Sergeant Jose Rodela attended the ceremony.

The niece of one medal recipient who died, Pfc. Leonard Kravitz, said in an interview with the Defense Department that she hopes reviews continue to find veterans who should have received the award.

“It’s bittersweet,” Laurie Wenger said in the interview. “I’m thrilled that he’s finally being honored and acknowledged for what he did. I just wish my grandparents and my dad could’ve been here to see it.”

Kravitz was killed in action in Korea as he stayed with his platoon’s machine gun, allowing the rest of the soldiers to survive. His nephew is musician Lenny Kravitz, who was in the White House audience today.

A full list of today’s recipients is here.

The Medal of Honor was created in 1861 and has been given to more than 3,400 military personnel from all branches of service, according to an Army history of the award.

Read the story of one who defied death in a Vietnam firefight, taking out bunkers with hand grenades and killing his enemy point blank, as told by Richard Simon of the Los Angeles Times: “It was either do or die,” Erevia recalled in a recent interview. “I said, ‘Well, if I’m going to die, I might as well die fighting.’”

 

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