WASHINGTON — They made seemingly impossible solo assaults on enemy bunkers, or refused to leave their positions as they covered fellow soldiers withdrawing before overwhelming onslaughts. Many ignored terrible wounds and kept fighting until they died, or until they had prevailed. They killed hundreds of hostile troops and saved the lives of many brothers in arms.
The 24 soldiers honored in a historic ceremony Tuesday at the White House fought in World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam with all the ferocious skill and selfless bravery required of Medal of Honor recipients.
But until this week, each was the recipient of the second highest award a soldier can receive — the Distinguished Service Cross. And for decades, suspicion lingered that for some of them, the nation’s highest military honor was withheld not because they lacked daring or military prowess, but because of their family names, or because of skin color or religion.
After a congressionally mandated 12-year review of hundreds of valor medals in an effort to make sure prejudice played no role in Medal of Honor awards, the Army found that it had failed to properly recognize some of its bravest and best.
“And today we have the chance to set the record straight,” President Barack Obama said in the East Room at the White House. “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.”
Most of the recipients Tuesday are Hispanic-American, while one is African-American and the other is Jewish. During the review, Army researchers also found five non-minority soldiers who should have received the Medal of Honor.
Only three of the 24 — Vietnam veterans Santiago Erevia, Melvin Morris and Jose Rodela — lived to personally receive the Medal of Honor. Another 10 were killed in action, and the rest died in the decades after the wars in which they fought.
Don’t look for bitterness over past wrongs among those who saw their medal awards upgraded Tuesday.
One of the three living recipients, retired Green Beret Morris, 72, told Stars and Stripes in an interview Monday he wasn’t thinking about medals at all as he recovered from three gunshots he received in September 1969. That’s when he made three risky but ultimately successful charges into an enemy bunker complex to recover the body of a fellow Special Forces NCO.
And he’d already re-enlisted when he heard in 1970 that he would receive the Distinguished Service Cross.
“I didn’t worry about it. I hadn’t finished my job … to beat the enemy,” he said. “I just felt like I was supposed to do a whole year (in Vietnam) and I didn’t do it.”
Morris said he never wanted to dwell on why he hadn’t received the Medal of Honor originally, but he admitted that a call from Obama in 2013 — whom he said apologized for the earlier medal award — affected him deeply.
“I don’t hold anything against anyone,” Morris said. “Times change, times move forward, and we look back to correct some things — so I feel good about that.”
Charles R. Baldonado, younger brother of one of the posthumous Medal of Honor recipients Tuesday, said he’d heard many times over the years that Cpl. Joe R. Baldonado deserved the nation’s highest honor.
In November 1950, the young soldier had held off the enemy for hours in an exposed machine gun position before being killed in a final charge.
His brother, never wanting to succumb to negativity or anger, pushed thoughts of prejudice out of his mind. But as it had for Morris, a call from President Obama convinced him to accept the reality that prejudice had influenced the award his brother had received.
“It sort of sank in a little bit that maybe it was something like that,” Baldonado said.
But in the same instant, the president’s call reassured him.
“That was then, and now is now, things have changed dramatically for the better,” he said. “We still have a long way to go, but we’ll get there. It’s the American way.”