President Obama Awards Medal of Honors to Discriminated Veterans

By Jairo Mejía, EFE Services

President Barack Obama awarded Medals of Honor Tuesday to 24 war veterans, 17 of them to Hispanics, in recognition of their “valor during major combat operations in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War,” but who were denied the nation’s highest military honor because of their ethnicity.

The president said awarding of the medals correct a historical injustice.

President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Specialist Four Santiago J. Erevia during the Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday. (Official White House Photo by  Amanda Lucidon)

President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Specialist Four Santiago J. Erevia during the Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

“No nation is perfect,” the President said at Tuesday’s ceremony in the East Room of the White House. “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.”

While the majority of recipients were Hispanic, Jewish and African Americans were also found to have been denied the medal for “conspicuous gallantry” out of prejudice.

Of the 24 recipients, only three are still alive and all of them served during the Vietnam War: Specialist Four Santiago Erevia, Sergeant First Class José Rodela and Staff Sergeant Melvin Morris.

Erevia, from San Antonio, Texas, courageously destroyed various enemy bunkers, saving the lives of his fellow badly injured soldiers.

Rodela, from Corpus Cristi, Texas, was able to reorganize his troop, assuming leadership and establishing lines of defense against the intense enemy fire, and for 18 hours, despite being wounded, braved enemy fire to attend to the fallen and eliminate an enemy rocket position.

“These are extraordinary Americans, exemplary soldiers,” that according to the president demonstrated “unimaginable” valor and patriotism.

Obama noted that the ceremony, the largest awarding of the Medal of Honor since World War II, was made possible thanks to a 2002 Congressional bill to correct the historical record by investigating whether some military personnel were discriminated because of their race, religion or origin.

In his opinion this was an “exceptional” opportunity to “correct history” and assure that

those who served the country and our flag receive the appreciation that they deserve.”

The heroic actions of these Hispanic, Jewish, African Americans span from the battles in Germany during World War II to the jungles of Vietnam, going over the uninhabitable terrain and extreme climate of North Korea.

President Barack Obama recognizes Medal of Honor honorees, from left, Staff Sergeant Melvin Morris, Sergeant First Class Jose Rodela, and Specialist Four Santiago J. Erevia, during the Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama recognizes Medal of Honor honorees, from left, Staff Sergeant Melvin Morris, Sergeant First Class Jose Rodela, and Specialist Four Santiago J. Erevia, during the Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

All of the veterans had received the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S.’s second highest military award, but a revision to a Congressional order determined that they deserved the highest honor.

“In the mist of battle, these people did not give up and they inspire us with their strength, their willpower and their heroic hearts,” said Obama before placing the Medal of Honor on the three surviving veterans and presenting the awards to the families of the other 19.

Ten of those honored left their life on the frontlines and one of them, Joe Baldonado, from East Los Angeles, is still listed as missing somewhere in North Korea, despite the United States trying for decades to recover the remains.

Of those that were honored, two were born in Mexico, Sgt. Jesus Duran and soldier Pedro Cano; and four in Puerto Rico, Felix, Conde-Falcon, Juan Negron, Demensio Rivera and Miguel “Nando” Vera. Despite not being born in the country, they exposed themselves to death or gave their life in service to the United States.

In December 1944, Cano eliminated 30 German enemies in two days by pretending he was dead and surprising them with a grenade. Seven years prior, Negron by himself maintained a critical line of defense in North Korea for an entire night, killing 15 enemies.

During Tuesday’s ceremony, the heroic actions taken by Joe Gandara, Salvador Lara and Manuel Mendoza, during World War II; Victor Espinoza, Eduardo Gomez and Mike Peña during the Korean War; and Candelario Garcia, Ardie Copas and Leonard Alvarado during the Vietnam War were recounted, with the president staying their actions demonstrated “courage that defies imagination.”

“Their families know more than anyone that because others have given their lives we have been able to live our lives in liberty and pursue our dreams. One legend born through sacrafice,” said Obama.

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March 20, 2014  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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