Medal of Honor given to 24 veterans overlooked because of discrimination

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Alejandro Alba

Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, left, Master Sgt. Jose Rodela and Sgt. Santiago J. Erevia all Army soldiers during the Vietnam War, stand as President Barack Obama and a crowd applaud after they received the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor on Tuesday at the White House. Of 24 soldiers who received the award, they were the only three still alive.

Alejandro Alba, Scripps Howard Foundation Wire Reporter

 

My whole life I’ve known that my father was somebody really special, so this is just a huge honor. It just helps to know that people are going to see that he wasn’t just someone who went to war, got in a fight and got killed.”

— Shyrell Herrera

WASHINGTON – Just like other American soldiers, they fought for their country and risked their own lives regardless of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Decades later they received the nation’s highest military honor, delayed precisely because of their race and ethnicity.

President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to 24 Jewish American, Hispanic American and African American veterans Tuesday in an effort to correct discrimination in the armed forces.

“Some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal,” Obama said at the ceremony filled with family members of the soldiers. “Today, we have the chance to set the record straight.”

The recipients were selected after the 2002 Defense Authorization Act asked for a review of war records from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War to ensure that deserving veterans were not being denied the Medal of Honor Veterans because of racial prejudice.

“Their courage almost defies imagination. When you read the records of these individuals its unimaginable the valor that they displayed,” Obama said.

The law was set in place after Mitchel Libman, 83, from Hollywood, Fla., began contacting members of Congress and asking them to review war records to recognize those who had been forgotten. A childhood friend of Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz, who died in Korea in 1951, Libman believed Kravitz and others had been overlooked for the medal because of their religion.

Obama singled Libman out as among those “who worked so hard for so long to bring us to this moment.”

Kravitz’s nephew and namesake, singer Lenny Kravitz, was in the audience.

The ceremony at the White House honored the largest group of Medal of Honor recipients since World War II. All recipients were in the Army.

Three of the recipients who fought in the Vietnam War are still living – Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, Sgt. Santiago J. Erevia and Master Sgt. Jose Rodela – and accepted the medals themselves.

All other medals were accepted by family members of the deceased.

Shyrell Herrera, daughter of Sgt. Ardie R. Copas, holds President Barack Obama's hand as the military announcer reads the commendation that accompanies the Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to her father. She accepted the medal on her father's behalf.
Shyrell Herrera, daughter of Sgt. Ardie R. Copas, holds President Barack Obama’s hand as the military announcer reads the commendation that accompanies the Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to her father. She accepted the medal on her father’s behalf.

Shyrell Herrera, daughter of deceased soldier Sgt. Ardie R. Copas, a machine-gunner during the Vietnam War from Fort Pierce, Fla., accepted the medal on behalf a father she never met. She was born just before he was killed.

“All I could do was cry,” Herrera said after the ceremony. “When they read the citations, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness and proud of my father.”

Herrera said accepting the medal was a form of spreading a message.

“My whole life I’ve known that my father was somebody really special, so this is just a huge honor,” Herrera said. “It just helps to know that people are going to see that he wasn’t just someone who went to war, got in a fight and got killed.”

The Medal of Honor is awarded to all those who distinguish themselves in gallantry and go above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States.

“On behalf of a grateful nation, we all want to thank you for inspiring us then and now with your strength, your will and your heroic hearts,” Obama said as he applauded the three living veterans.

The following living veterans received the Medal of Honor:

Vietnam War

The following Medal of Honor recipients received the award posthumously:

World War II

Korean War

Vietnam War

Sgt. Candelario Garcia – team leader, Corsicana, Texas.