They braved bullets and bombs, risking their lives for their country.
Now — having been passed over in some cases for decades due to their ethnicity or skin color — the U.S. government is giving them their just reward.
President Barack Obama announced Friday that 24 Army veterans would receive the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military award, bestowed on U.S. troops who show “gallantry above and beyond the call of duty ” — for their combat actions in Vietnam, Korea and during World War II.
Many of their fellow soldiers received this medal long ago, for doing similar things in similar places at similar times. But not these 24 men.
In 2002, Congress — as part of the Defense Authorization Act — set up a review of Jewish and Hispanic veterans who served in combat since the middle of the century “to ensure those deserving the Medal Of Honor were not denied because of prejudice,” explained the White House. The congressional action was later amended to open the door for any serviceman or woman denied the award due to discrimination.
Twenty-one of the new Medal of Honor recipients — with last names including Garcia and Weinstein and Negron — aren’t alive to receive the award.
But three others, including Melvin Morris, are alive to be recognized.
Morris was 19 when he volunteered to go to Vietnam. In 1969, the Army Green Beret got hit multiple times by bullets during combat. Bleeding, he “charged into a hail of fire” to rescue his dead and wounded comrades in what the Army characterizes as a show of “determination possessed by few men.”
His heroics were recognized in 1970 with the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross award.
Now 72, Morris — who is black — will wear his country’s highest military honor.
So, too, will Santiago J. Erevia, a native Texan. The radio-telephone operator was caring for wounded colleagues in 1969 in Vietnam when his position came under attack. According to the Military Times, “without hesitation Specialist Erevia crawled from one wounded man to another,” charged while armed toward the hostile fire, before eventually returning to take care of the injured troops he’d left behind.
The last surviving new Medal of Honor recipient is Jose Rodela, who like Morris and Erevia also won a Distinguished Service Cross. While commanding a mobile strike force in Vietnam, Rodela was “wounded in the back and head by rocket shrapnel while recovering a wounded comrade,” according to a military commendation, yet he still single-handedly “assaulted and knocked out (a) rocket position” before returning to lead his men.
One of those who will posthumously receive the award is Leonard Kravitz, an assistant machine gunner in the Korean War. He is the uncle and namesake of actor and rock musician Lenny Kravitz.
Retired Marine Col. Harvey Barnum, who is white, says he is eager to welcome all the new award recipients into the fold.
Barnum, who earned a Medal of Honor himself in 1967 for his service in Vietnam, said he “had heard rumors … that there were certain people that people thought should have received the medal.”
Now that they’re finally being justly recognized, Barnum said, “I’ll look forward to putting my arms around them, and calling them brother, and saying welcome home.”