Santiago Erevia, a Vietnam veteran who had been denied the nation’s highest military honor for 45 years because he was Hispanic, died in San Antonio on Tuesday. He was 69.
The New York Times reported that Erevia, who single-handedly destroyed four enemy bunkers during a search and clear mission near Tam Ky, South Vietnam on May 21, 1969, died of a heart attack on Tuesday, his wife Leticia Lopez Erevia said.
The retired postal worker was one of the 18 Latinos whose heroic deeds earned them the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest award for gallantry, instead of the Medal of Honor.
In 2014, he received the U.S. military’s highest honor after a congressionally mandated review of minorities who may had been passed over because of long-held prejudices.
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.
Erevia, a high school dropout, joined the Army while going through a divorce.
"I joined the Army because I had no money to go to college and I wanted a better future," Erevia told the Associated Press in 2014. He eventually got his high school equivalency certificate and went to college, although he didn't earn a degree.
He left active service in 1970, served in the Texas National Guard for 17 years and retired from the United States Postal Service in 2002. In addition to his wife, Erevia is survived by three sons and a daughter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.