President Obama corrected a past injustice yesterday when he awarded the Medal of Honor to 24 Army veterans — only three of them still alive — who had displayed exceptional courage in Vietnam, Korea and World War II, but were denied the prestigious medal because of racial discrimination.
It is the highest military award in the U.S., given to American soldiers who display “gallantry above and beyond the call of duty.” There have been fewer than 3,500 medals awarded to the nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen since it was created and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in December 1861, eight months after the start of the Civil War.
The medals came as a result of an act by the 2002 Congress, which set up a review of Jewish and Hispanic veterans who had served in combat since the middle of the century, “to ensure those deserving the Medal of Honor were not denied because of prejudice.” The congressional action was later amended to add any serviceman or woman denied the award due to discrimination.
“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,” Obama said. “As one family member said, this is long overdue.”
Melvin Morris of Cocoa, Fla., and Jose Rodela and Santiago Erevia of Texas were the only veterans alive to receive their blue-ribboned award, all for service in Vietnam. Of the 24, eight of the soldiers served in Vietnam, nine in the Korean War and seven in World War II.
“I never really did worry about decorations,” Morris told Fox News. Morris, who is African-American, was commended for courageous actions while he was a staff sergeant during combat operations on Sept. 17, 1969, in the vicinity of Chi Lang, South Vietnam. In an interview last month, he said it never occurred to him that his race might have prevented him from receiving the Medal of Honor.
“I fell to my knees. I was shocked,” Morris said about the call he received from Obama last year. “President Obama said he was sorry this didn’t happen before. He said this should have been done 44 years ago.”
“It makes me very proud that they are going back and looking at records,” Morris told CNN.
The other living recipients are Spc. 4 Erevia of San Antonio, cited for courage during a search-and-clear mission near Tam Ky, South Vietnam, on May 21, 1969; and Sgt. 1st Class Rodela of San Antonio, cited for courage during combat operations in Phuoc Long province, South Vietnam, on Sept. 1, 1969.
Lenny Kravitz, whose uncle Leonard Kravitz was honored posthumously for his service in Korea in 1951, was at the ceremony.