WASHINGTON — They were heroes who didn’t get their due.
On Tuesday, 24 mostly ethnic or minority U.S. soldiers who performed bravely under fire in three of the nation’s wars finally received the Medal of Honor that the government concluded should have been awarded a long time ago.
The servicemen — Hispanics, Jews and African-Americans — were identified following a congressionally mandated review to ensure that eligible recipients of the country’s highest recognition for valor were not bypassed because of prejudice. Only three of the 24 were alive for President Barack Obama to drape the medals and ribbons around their necks.
“Today we have the chance to set the record straight,” Obama said. “No nation is perfect, but here in America we confront our imperfections and face a sometimes painful past, including the truth that some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal.”
The three surviving recipients — Vietnam veterans Jose Rodela, Melvin Morris and Santiago Erevia — received a prolonged standing ovation at Obama’s side, their faces set in somber acknowledgement of the honor.
Among those who received a posthumous medal was Leonard Kravitz, an assistant machine gunner in the Korean War who is credited with saving his platoon by providing cover for retreating troops. He died in the attack. He is the uncle of singer and actor Lenny Kravitz, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony.
Obama singled out a childhood friend of the elder Kravitz, Mitchel Libman, for making a mission of upgrading medals for deserving soldiers.
“He and his wife Marilyn spent years writing letters and working with Congress and our military to get this done,” Obama said.
Tuesday’s mass ceremony, the largest since World War II, was the result of an Army review conducted under a directive from Congress in the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act. The law required that the record of each Jewish-American and Hispanic-American veteran who received a Service Cross during or after World War II be reviewed for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor. Of the two dozen, 18 are Latinos.
The Pentagon said the Army reviewed the cases of the 6,505 recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars and found an eligible pool of 600 soldiers who may have been Jewish or Hispanic. The Army also worked with the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, the Jewish War Veterans of the USA and the American GI Forum, the largest Hispanic-American veterans group, to pinpoint potential medal recipients.
During the initial review, investigators found that other soldiers who had received the Distinguished Service Cross appeared to meet the criteria for a Medal of Honor and the directive was expanded to permit them to be considered for the upgraded honor.
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