WASHINGTON — If not for the hue of their skin or their ethnicity, 24 soldiers who faced death in service to their nation would have received the most prestigious medals for their valor long ago.
But they were born and fought in a time when such deeds were not always fairly acknowledged.
On Tuesday, the U.S. government plans to correct the oversight.
President Barack Obama will honor 24 Army veterans with the Medal of Honor — the country’s highest military award, given to American soldiers who display “gallantry above and beyond the call of duty ” — for their combat actions in Vietnam, Korea and World War II.
Only three of the soldiers are alive to receive the recognition.
The rest — soldiers with last names including Garcia and Weinstein and Negron — are dead.
For the few who survive, like Melvin Morris, this day has been more than 40 years in the making.
He was fresh-faced and 19 when he volunteered to go to Vietnam. In 1969, the Army Green Beret “charged into a hail of fire” to save his injured comrades and retrieve the bodies of the fallen, even though he was shot several times and bleeding. The Army would later say his actions on the battlefield that day showed “determination possessed by few men.”
He was honored in 1970 with the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross award.
Today, at age 72, Morris — who is African-American — will receive his nation’s most esteemed military honor.
“I never really did worry about decorations,” Morris, who now lives in Cocoa, Florida, told Fox News. He said when he got the word, “I fell to my knees. I was shocked. President Obama said he was sorry this didn’t happen before. He said this should have been done 44 years ago.”
There are others too.
They are men like Santiago J. Erevia, a radiotelephone operator from Texas who in 1969 tended injured comrades in Vietnam when his position came under attack. According to the Military Times, “without hesitation Specialist Erevia crawled from one wounded man to another,” then charged while armed toward the hostile fire before eventually returning to take care of the injured troops he’d left behind.
They are men like Jose Rodela, who, while commanding a mobile strike force in Vietnam, was “wounded in the back and head by rocket shrapnel while recovering a wounded comrade,” according to a military commendation. Still he single-handedly “assaulted and knocked out (a) rocket position” before returning to lead his men.
In 2002, Congress — as part of the Defense Authorization Act — 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,” 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.
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.