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Heroes’ service noted at long last

Vietnam veterans (from left) Staff Sergeant Melvin Morris, Sergeant First Class Jose Rodela, and Specialist Santiago Erevia after receiving the Medal of Honor.

JIM LO SCALZO/EPA

Vietnam veterans (from left) Staff Sergeant Melvin Morris, Sergeant First Class Jose Rodela, and Specialist Santiago Erevia after receiving the Medal of Honor.

WASHINGTON — Mitch Libman was surprised when his childhood friend, Private First Class Leonard Kravitz, was not selected for the Medal of Honor — the military’s top honor — after his service in the Korean War. Libman, back in Denver, had received regular updates from Kravitz about the fighting. But then Kravitz died a hero, with his actions saving his entire platoon in Yangpyong, Korea, on March 6-7, 1951.

Kravitz was Jewish, and “it was obvious for me, from reading everything, that it had something to do with his religion,” Libman said in a video interview with the newspaper Stars and Stripes. “And I couldn’t believe that here’s a guy who saved so many lives, and people are upset that a Jewish guy is getting a Medal of Honor,” Libman said. “And there were so many groups that were caught up in that type of thing.”

Lenora Alvarado, seated next to Rodela, wiped away tears after accepting the Medal of Honor on behalf of her father, Vietnam veteran Specialist Four Leonard L. Alvarado.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Lenora Alvarado, seated next to Rodela, wiped away tears after accepting the Medal of Honor on behalf of her father, Vietnam veteran Specialist Four Leonard L. Alvarado.

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Libman was angry enough to petition members of Congress to reconsider Kravitz for the Medal of Honor — he had already been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest military award. The efforts led Congress to require the Army, Air Force, and Navy to review the records of Jewish and Hispanic service members who had received the Distinguished Service Cross for their heroics in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars to determine whether they had been passed over for the Medal of Honor because of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

Investigators concluded that 24 service members — most of them Hispanic and all of them from the Army — had been unfairly denied the Medal of Honor, and on Tuesday they were honored at a White House ceremony. Only three of them were still alive to be awarded the medal in person. Family members accepted for the others.

“No nation is perfect,” President Obama said at a 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.

“So we’ve, each generation, we kept on striving to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality and to recognize the dignity and patriotism of every person,” he added, “no matter who they are, what they look like, or how they pray.”

The effort to right the historical wrong began long before Obama came to office as the nation’s first black president, but it has been a priority for him.

The congressional measure requiring the investigation, the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act of 2001, was amended to include service members who were neither Jewish nor of Hispanic heritage. Together, the recipients are called the Valor 24.

Kravitz is the uncle of singer and actor Lenny Kravitz, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony, the Associated Press reported.

Seven members of the Valor 24 fought in World War II, nine in Korea, and eight in Vietnam, including the three surviving service members: Specialist Santiago J. Erevia and Sergeant First Class Jose Rodela, both of San Antonio, and Staff Sergeant Melvin Morris of Cocoa, Fla.

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