WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has recognized 24 ethnic or minority veterans with the Medal of Honor for combat bravery after years of being bypassed due to prejudice. The service of the Hispanic, Jewish and African-American soldiers spanned three wars - from the World War II to Korea and Vietnam.
Of the honorees, only three were alive to receive their medals. Vietnam veterans Jose Rodela, Melvin Morris and Santiago Erevia attended the ceremony and were commended for bravery on the battlefield.
"It's unimaginable the valor that they displayed. Running into bullets, charging machine gun nests, and climbing aboard tanks and taking them out. Covering their comrades so they could make it to safety. Holding back enemies, wave after wave, even when the combat was hand-to-hand. Manning their post, some to their very last breaths, so that their comrades might live," said Obama.
The veterans were honored after a congressionally mandated review of thousands of war records of ethnic or minority service personnel in 2002 in an effort, as Obama said, "to make sure the heroism of veterans did not go overlooked due to discrimination."
"No nation is perfect. But here in America we confront our imperfections and face the 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," said Obama.
Many of the recipients had received the Distinguished Service Cross, but because of prejudice had not been offered the Medal of Honor. Pam Elbe, an archivist with the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, said one of the posthumous recipients, Leonard Kravitz, a Korean War veteran credited with saving his comrades during battle, was long deserving of the medal.
"I think at least in the Jewish community there’s always been a feeling that some people were maybe overlooked because they were Jewish - Leonard Kravitz being a good example. People have always felt that what he did deserved the Medal of Honor - not just the Distinguished Service Cross," said Elbe.
Elbe said that although discrimination was not an official part of U.S. military practice, many soldiers were overlooked for either religious or racial reasons.
"Unfortunately in the military, if your commander is an anti-Semite or prejudiced in some other way, you might be overlooked for something or given jobs you don’t want to do - so it’s just a general microcosm of society," said Elbe.
This was the single largest group of service members to be awarded the Medal of Honor since World War II. The medal has been awarded to more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers since 1863.