WASHINGTON (AP) – Seeking to correct potential acts of bias spanning three wars, President Barack Obama will award the Medal of Honor to 24 Army veterans following a congressionally mandated review to ensure that eligible recipients were not bypassed due to prejudice.
The unusual mass ceremony, scheduled for March 18, will honor veterans, most of Hispanic or Jewish heritage, who had already been recognized with the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military award. Only three of the recipients are living.
"I never really did worry about decorations," said one of those being honored, Melvin Morris of Cocoa, Fla., who was commended for courageous actions while a staff sergeant during combat operations on Sept. 17, 1969, in the vicinity of Chi Lang, South Vietnam.
Morris, who is black, said in an interview that it never occurred to him that his race might have prevented him from receiving the Medal of Honor. He said it was a huge surprise when the Army contacted him last May about the review and then arranged for a call from Obama.
"I fell to my knees. I was shocked," Morris said. "President Obama said he was sorry this didn't happen before. He said this should have been done 44 years ago."
The other living recipients are Spc. 4 Santiago J. Erevia of San Antonio, cited for courage during a search and clear mission near Tam Ky, South Vietnam, on May 21, 1969; and Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodela of San Antonio, cited for courage during combat operations in Phuoc Long province, South Vietnam, on Sept. 1, 1969.
The Army conducted the review under a directive from Congress in the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act. The law required that the record of each Jewish American and Hispanic American veteran who received a Service Cross during or after World War II be reviewed for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor.
The Pentagon said the Army reviewed the cases of the 6,505 recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars and found an eligible pool of 600 soldiers who may have been Jewish or Hispanic. The Army also worked with the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, the Jewish War Veterans of the USA and the American GI Forum, the largest Hispanic-American veterans group, to pinpoint potential medal recipients.
Of the 24, eight fought in the Vietnam War, nine in the Korean War and seven in World War II.