The emotional ceremony marked the culmination of a 50-year campaign waged by Korean War veteran Mitchel Libman, now 83, who was convinced that 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 Latinos, one African American and one Jewish soldier, according to the military.
The 75-minute event in the East Room of the White House 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 three 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 injured master sergeant in the Chi Lang district; Santiago J. 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 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 the men they had lost to war. They included Tina Duran-Ruvalcaba, who became visibly upset as the citation was read for her father, Spec. Jesus S. 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 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and many of the veterans had died by the time the Pentagon began its review. Officials interviewed family members, fellow soldiers and others as part of the effort.
A cousin and a step-niece came to Washington on behalf of Pvt. Joe Gandara, who served with Company D, 2nd Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division. He was recognized for his actions during combat operations in Amfreville, France, on June 9, 1944.
Armando Lopez, a cousin of Gandara’s, told reporters that he remembered his own mother and others telling stories about Gandara, even though “I was born after he passed away.”
“I didn’t know him,” Lopez said. “He had died parachuting in World War II. That’s all I know about him.”
Libman, by contrast, described in detail his late friend Leonard M. Kravitz, the uncle and namesake of rock musician Lenny Kravitz, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony. Libman called Leonard Kravitz a sweet and unassuming kid from Brooklyn who liked hanging out in a candy store with his friends.
“He was not the hero type, he was not the great athlete, but he was a good guy, and I made sure he was always involved in everything that I did,” Libman told reporters this week. “We grew up together. We all hung out in the candy store in Brooklyn, and in that candy store, you would find notes from one another.”
It was in that same store that Libman learned that Kravitz had earned the Distinguished Service Cross for the Army. Kravitz died in March 1951 while serving as an assistant machine gunner with Company M, 5th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division during combat in Yangpyong, Korea.
Libman said that while “you don’t usually argue about it,” given that it is the military’s second-highest honor, he thought Kravitz deserved more.
“I came to the conclusion that they don’t give Jews the Medal of Honor. And it was pretty accurate,” said Libman, who persuaded then-Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) to push legislation calling for the Pentagon review. “However, things have changed for the better. And he got what he deserved. He got the Medal of Honor, and quite a few others got it, too. So it made my life worth something.”
Libman said the president told him in May 2012 that the heroism of Kravitz and others would be recognized.
“He was really very good,” Libman said of Obama. “He said: ‘You know, this is not something we can do overnight. We can’t do it next week.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, the week after would be great.’ He totally cracked up.”
Miriam Theresa Adams, a step-niece of Gandara’s, said his parents had emigrated from Mexico in the early 1900s to Santa Monica, Calif., and lived in a Mexican American neighborhood. The family was proud of their U.S. citizenship and the sacrifice they made for the United States, she said.
“When they brought him home, he had one flag on his coffin,” Adams told reporters. “We are proud of that. He was proud of his heritage, but he was an American.”