24 minority veterans receive long overdue Medal of Honor

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(CNN) – 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 corrected the oversight.

President Barack Obama honored 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.

“Some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal,” Obama said during a ceremony at the White House. “…Their courage almost defies imagination.”

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.

Of the 24 honored, 10 never came home. The body of one — Cpl. Joe Baldonado — has never been recovered, Obama said.

The late Portsmouth soldier Demensio Rivera was among those honored. His granddaughter, Sgt. Ashley Randall, accepted the medal in his honor.

For the few who survive, such as 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.”

“The staff sergeant recovered a fallen comrade … and took out several bunkers even after he was shot several times,” Obama said.

He was honored in 1970 with the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross award.

Today, at age 72, Morris — who is African-American — received 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.

Morris, Rodela and Erevia wore Army uniforms as they accepted the medal, which was placed around their neck by Obama.

“In the thick of the fight all those years ago, for your comrades and your country, you refused to yield,” the President said.

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 posthumously received 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.

The President posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to the following who served during the Vietnam War:

Sergeant Candelario Garcia will receive the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions while serving as an acting Team Leader for Company B, 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry, 1st Brigade,1st Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Lai Khe, Republic of Vietnam on December 8, 1968.

Specialist Four Leonard L. Alvarado will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a Rifleman with Company D, 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) during combat operations against an armed enemy in Phuoc Long Province, Republic of Vietnam on August 12, 1969.

Staff Sergeant Felix M. Conde-Falcon will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an acting Platoon Leader in Company D, 1st Battalion, 505th Infantry Regiment, 3d Brigade, 82d Airborne Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Ap Tan Hoa, Republic of Vietnam on April 4, 1969.

Specialist Four Ardie R. Copas will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a Machinegunner in Company C, 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 5th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy near Ph Romeas Hek, Cambodia on May 12, 1970.

Specialist Four Jesus S. Duran will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an acting M-60 machinegunner in Company E, 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) during combat operations against an armed enemy in the Republic of Vietnam on April 10, 1969.

The President posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to the following who served during the Korean War:

Corporal Joe R. Baldonado will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an acting machine gunner in 3d Squad, 2d Platoon, Company B, 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment during combat operations against an armed enemy in Kangdong, Korea on November 25, 1950.

Corporal Victor H. Espinoza will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an Acting Rifleman in Company A, 23d Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Chorwon, Korea on August 1, 1952.

Sergeant Eduardo C. Gomez will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving with Company I, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Tabu-dong, Korea on September 3, 1950.

Private First Class Leonard M. Kravitz will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an assistant machinegunner with Company M, 5th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Yangpyong, Korea on March 6 and 7, 1951.

Master Sergeant Juan E. Negron will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a member of Company L, 65th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Kalma-Eri, Korea on April 28, 1951.

Master Sergeant Mike C. Pena will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a member of Company F, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Waegwan, Korea, on September 4, 1950.

Private Demensio Rivera will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an automatic rifleman with 2d Platoon, Company G, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Changyong-ni, Korea on May 23, 1951.

Private Miguel A. Vera will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as an automatic rifleman with Company F, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division in Chorwon, Korea, on September 21, 1952.

Sergeant Jack Weinstein will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while leading 1st Platoon, Company G, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division in Kumsong, Korea on October 19, 1951.

The President posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to the following who served during World War II:

Private Pedro Cano will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving with Company C, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Schevenhutte, Germany on December 3, 1944.

Private Joe Gandara will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving with Company D, 2d Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Amfreville, France on June 9, 1944.

Private First Class Salvador J. Lara will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as the Squad Leader of a rifle squad with 2d Platoon, Company L, 180th Infantry, 45th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Aprilia, Italy on May 27 and 28, 1944.

Sergeant William F. Leonard will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a Squad Leader in Company C, 30th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy near St. Die, France on November 7, 1944.

Staff Sergeant Manuel V. Mendoza will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a Platoon Sergeant with Company B, 350th Infantry, 88th Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy on Mt. Battaglia, Italy on October 4, 1944.

Sergeant Alfred B. Nietzel will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as a section leader for Company H, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Heistern, Germany on November 18, 1944.

First Lieutenant Donald K. Schwab will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions while serving as the Commander of Company E, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division, during combat operations against an armed enemy near Lure, France on September 17, 1944.

By Chelsea J Carter and Halimah Abdullah

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