SAN ANTONIO (AP) – Former Sgt. Santiago Erevia remembers the day in May 1969 when his Army unit came under heavy enemy fire in Vietnam. While crawling from one wounded solder to the next, the radio telephone operator used two M-16s and several grenades to single-handedly destroy four enemy bunkers and their occupants.
Decades later, the Texas man's heroic feat earned him the Medal of Honor.
"I thought I was going to get killed when I started to advance because when you fight battles like that you don't expect to live," Erevia told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Erevia is one of 24 veterans who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam to receive the U.S. military's highest honor after a congressionally mandated review of minorities who may have been passed over because of long-held prejudices. The veterans — most of Hispanic or Jewish heritage — will be recognized in a March 18 ceremony that will try to correct the long-ignored ethnic and religious discrimination in the armed forces
The 68-year-old retired postal worker is one of 18 Latinos whose heroic deeds earned them the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest award for gallantry, and whose recognition is bringing to light the long history of military service among the Latino community — despite the prejudice they faced.
"For Mexican-American and Latino veterans, it's a really high point," Ignacio Garcia, a Vietnam veteran and Latino history professor at Brigham Young University, said. "It highlights the notion of duty — in spite of problems, and despite limitations that people put upon the Latino community, and despite having being treated as second-class citizens."
Erevia, cited for courage during a search and clear mission near Tam Ky, South Vietnam, on May 21, 1969, is one of three of the 24 veterans who will be honored who are still alive. Former Sgt. Jose Rodela, from Corpus Christi, Texas, who will receive the medal for bravery during fighting in Phuoc Long province, Vietnam, in early September 1969, also lives in San Antonio.
The other recipient still alive is Melvin Morris, became one of the first soldiers to don a "green beret" in 1961 and volunteered twice for deployments to Vietnam during the war. Morris endured massive enemy fire directed at him and his men — he was hit three times — but was able to a fellow commander who'd been killed and recover the body. He also retrieved a map that included strategic information that would have been trouble if it fell into enemy hands.
"Those that aren't even here to receive their medals, those are my heroes," said Morris, who retired from the Army in 1986 as a sergeant first class. "They gave their whole life. They gave everything. They gave it all."
Among those posthumously honored is Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz, the uncle of musician Lenny Kravitz.
"I am grateful that my uncle is finally receiving this honor," Kravitz said in a statement Saturday night. "He sacrificed his life for his brothers and is a true hero. My family is extremely proud."
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.
Of the 24, eight fought in the Vietnam War, nine in the Korean War and seven in World War II.
Latinos have served in the U.S. military for generations because they see it as a chance to change their circumstances, get out of poverty or obtain an education, Garcia said.
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 said. He eventually got his high school equivalency certificate and went to college, although he didn't earn a degree.
Many Latinos who served in the military later would be the ones who fought for equal treatment, Garcia added.
Albert Gonzalez, the national commander of the American GI Forum, the largest Hispanic-American veterans group, said recognizing the veterans with the Medal of Honor shows a willingness in the country to face a blemish in American history.
"It says to us that the country hasn't forgotten us even though they keep certain doors closed to us ..." he said.
Erevia's wife, Leticia, said her husband is glad to be recognized but has mixed feelings about the war.
"Many times when he tells me these stories, he cries," she said.
Erevia said he thinks there were people more deserving of the highest honor than him, including a soldier who carried two wounded comrades out of harm's way just minutes before he was shot in the head and killed.
"I think he deserved it more than I did," he said.