WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to 24 veterans Tuesday, most of whom were initially passed over because they were Hispanic, Jewish or African-American.
The emotional ceremony marked the culmination of a 50-year campaign waged by Korean War veteran Mitchel Libman, now 83, who was convinced his childhood friend from Brooklyn was denied the nation’s highest commendation for combat valor because he was Jewish.
Obama noted that a Medal of Honor ceremony “is always a special occasion. But today it is truly historic.”
“This ceremony reminds us of one of the enduring qualities that makes America great, that makes us exceptional,” 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.”
Prompted by a law passed by Congress in 2002, the Pentagon conducted an extensive review to examine past discrimination in Medal of Honor decisions and concluded that 19 men did not receive the honor because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds. The group included 17 Latino, one African-American and one Jewish soldier, according to the military.
The 75-minute event in the East Room included the single largest group of Medal of Honor recipients since World War II, when more than two dozen service members were recognized shortly before the end of fighting. Only three of the newest honorees are still alive, all of whom served in Vietnam and performed heroic acts in 1969: Melvin Morris, a former Green Beret who was wounded three times while recovering the body of his fatally wounded master sergeant in the Chi Lang district; Santiago Erevia, a former radio telephone operator who conducted “courageous actions” during a search-and-clear mission near Tam Ky; and Jose Rodela, who served as a Special Forces company commander during 18 hours of combat operations in Phuoc Long Province.
The president marveled at how quietly the men had lived their lives in the wake of such valor. Rodela, for example, is now a 76-year old retiree who often mows his neighbors’ lawns. “Jose is such a humble guy that he did not even mention this ceremony to his neighbors, who I think would be pretty shocked to turn on the news tonight and see that the guy who cuts their lawn is getting the Medal of Honor,” Obama said to laughter from the audience.
The surviving veterans received their medals after taking their turns by the president’s side in their dress blues. Then a parade of daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, cousins and granddaughters of recipients came up individually as a military aide recounted extraordinary stories of heroism: destroying an enemy tunnel with TNT under fire, clambering aboard a tank to take it out, and retrieving comrades even when it meant certain death.
Obama wrapped his arms around many of the women who received the honor on behalf of men they had lost to war. They included Tina Duran-Ruvalcaba, who became visibly upset as the citation was read for her father, specialist Jesus Duran, and Nancy Weinstein, the frail widow of Sgt. Jack Weinstein, who died in Korea in 1951.
“Their courage almost defies imagination,” the president said.
The reassessment was complicated by the destruction of millions of military personnel files in a 1973 fire in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and many of the veterans had died by the time the Pentagon began reviewing files. Officials interviewed family members, fellow soldiers and others as part of the effort.