The Army set the record straight in 2014 for two dozen heroes from past wars — overlooked but not forgotten — who finally took their place among America’s most decorated military members.
The White House ceremony in March for soldiers who fought in wars from World War II to Vietnam was the culmination of decades of effort to ensure that sacrifice and bravery, regardless of race or ethnic background, are the criteria for the nation’s highest combat decoration.
Only three of the 24 soldiers — Vietnam veterans Santiago Erevia, Melvin Morris and Jose Rodela — lived to participate in the ceremony, where Obama spoke of American willingness to examine the past and try to correct historical wrongs.
“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,” he said.
The roots of the Army’s medal review stretched back to the battlefield in Korea in March 1951, when a young machine gunner, Pfc. Leonard Kravitz, refused to leave his post in the face of what the Army described as a “fanatical” charge by Chinese troops.
Kravitz mowed down waves of attackers as he covered withdrawing comrades. When they later retook the position, they found his body by his machine gun. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest valor award a soldier can earn.
A friend from Kravitz’s boyhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., heard the story and thought it sounded a lot like those of other Medal of Honor accounts he had heard. Mitchell Libman was sure he knew why Kravitz hadn’t received the highest honor possible.
“It was obvious to me from reading everything that it had something to do with his religion,” he told Stars and Stripes. “And I couldn’t believe that here’s a guy who saved so many lives, and there are people upset that a Jewish guy is getting the Medal of Honor.”
He worked for decades to correct the injustice, finally finding an effective ally in Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who introduced a bill requiring the review in the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act. The law required the Army to review the cases of all Jewish and Hispanic soldiers who had received the Distinguished Service Cross from World War II onward to see if their heroism had been unfairly passed over. An earlier review had found seven black soldiers who had deserved the Medal of Honor but received a lower award.
Reviewers combed through about 6,500 Distinguished Service Crosses and zeroed in on 600 for closer review.
In the end, the Army concluded Kravitz had been unfairly downgraded, as had numerous African-American and Hispanic soldiers.
One of the surviving recipients told Stars and Stripes he’d never been upset about receiving the Distinguished Service Cross for charging into heavy fire in Vietnam to retrieve a fallen buddy. But Melvin Morris, a staff sergeant at the time of the action, said he was proud to represent soldiers who never lived to see the day when only their actions in battle counted, not skin color or religion.
“I don’t hold anything against anyone,” Morris told Stars and Stripes. “Times change, times move forward, and we look back to correct some things — so I feel good about that.”