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To right old wrong, Obama awards Medal of Honor to overlooked Hispanic, Jewish and African-American soldiers

March 18, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
President Obama awarded the nation’s highest medal for combat valor to 24 Hispanic, Jewish and African-American soldiers who served during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. The Pentagon blamed racial or ethnic discrimination for previously denying their honors. Gwen Ifill talks to retired Lt. Col. Sheldon Goldberg of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History.

GWEN IFILL: For the 24 soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House this afternoon, their service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam had already earned them a commendation, just not the one they ultimately deserved.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, we have the chance to set the record straight.

GWEN IFILL: With the East Room as a backdrop, the president acted today to right an old wrong, awarding the nation’s highest medal for combat valor to a group of two dozen Hispanic, Jewish and African-American veterans.

The ceremony came after a 12-year review by the Pentagon that blames racial or ethnic discrimination for denying the honor to a number of servicemen from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The president said it’s an example of why the nation must not shy away from confronting past discrimination.

PRESIDEDNT BARACK OBAMA: No nation is perfect. 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 didn’t always see them as equal.

So we have — each generation, we keep on striving to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality and to recognize the dignity and patriotism of every person, no matter who they are, what they look like or how they pray.

GWEN IFILL: The recipients recognized this afternoon had already been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest military commendation.

Just three are still alive, Vietnam veterans Santiago Erevia, Melvin Morris, and Jose Rodela. Erevia charged into oncoming fire to knock out four enemy bunkers, then tended to wounded soldiers. Morris, a former Green Beret, was wounded three times recovering the body of his fatally wounded master sergeant. Rodela repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire during an 18-hour battle, as he tried to check on casualties in his company.

After recounting those heroic efforts, the president invited all three men on stage for a special tribute, reciting Tennyson.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Santiago Erevia, Melvin Morris, Jose Rodela, in the thick of the fight all those years ago, for your comrades and country, you refused to yield. And on behalf of a grateful nation, we all want to thank you for inspiring us, then and now, with your strength, your will, and your heroic hearts.

Please give them a big round of applause.


GWEN IFILL: The soldiers recognized today represent the largest single group of Medal of Honor recipients since World War II.

The president read citations for all 24 today, as family members accepted the honor for their deceased relatives.

Watch the full ceremony:

For more on how today’s remarkable ceremony came to be, we turn to retired Lieutenant Colonel Sheldon Goldberg. He is a 30-year Air Force veteran, now a docent at the National Museum of Jewish Military History.

Thank you for joining us.

It’s interesting to me how many of these 24 were either Jewish-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, one African-American. How did all this come to be today?

LT. COL. SHELDON GOLDBERG (RET.), National Museum of Jewish Military History: Well, this came to be back in the year 2000 or so, when, after earlier ethnic groups had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, it was questioned whether or not there were any Jewish veterans who had been denied this.

And, as a result, Congressman Wexler put together an act called the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act of 2001. And this act then got expanded somewhat to allow also for Hispanic and African-American and other ethnic groups.

GWEN IFILL: To basically go back through the files and reconstruct people who…

LT. COL. SHELDON GOLDBERG: Right. And it’s through World War II.

I misspoke there, but through World War II, and allowing also up to Korea. So, the criteria was first to review those that had won the Distinguished Service Cross.


LT. COL. SHELDON GOLDBERG: And my understanding is that they picked out about 625 soldiers. And from that, it was whittled down again after reviews and documentation was searched and so on to about 200-and-some-odd.

GWEN IFILL: You — go ahead.

LT. COL. SHELDON GOLDBERG: This is why it took too long. It took 10 years to do this, plus I think the fact that the record center in Saint Louis had been burned to a certain extent and records were lost.

GWEN IFILL: A lot of records were destroyed.


GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this.

By the way, you mentioned the name Leonard Kravitz.


GWEN IFILL: His nephew was at the White House today. He’s one of a lot of people know as Lenny Kravitz, actually.


GWEN IFILL: It’s very interesting how this happens.

But how widespread — you were in the service — how widespread was the kind of discrimination that would allow people not to be recognized for their heroics?

LT. COL. SHELDON GOLDBERG: Well, fortunately, I can say, during my time in service, I didn’t notice anything like that. I cannot think of one anti-Semitic incident that I experienced in my entire 30 years.

But you have to go back in the history and go all the way to the Civil War and thereafter where anti-Semitism, prejudice against blacks, for example, people believed that they didn’t fight. Mark Twain himself wrote an article in “Harper’s” magazine, I believe it was in 1895, that said that, while the Jew was a great civil servant, he neglected to stand up for the flag.

And this was the reason the Jewish War Veterans, for example, was formed in 1896, to show that Jews, for one, did fight, and we were at the very front and in the forefront of combat in the Civil War and in subsequent wars afterward.

GWEN IFILL: So, when you see this kind of recognition today, for you, there’s a broader meaning to it?

LT. COL. SHELDON GOLDBERG: It’s a great day, I think, really for all Americans.

I mean, it shows once and for all that there’s recognition that ethnic minorities in the United States are just as much American, just as patriotic as anyone else, and that they do, in fact, fight, defend their country, they are patriotic. And they are right there at the very front lines doing what is expected of them to do and even more.

GWEN IFILL: Watching that ceremony today, I was struck by how emotional it was, especially so many of the surviving family members.

And it makes me wonder whether recognition like this, especially after so many of them have passed on, can come too late?

LT. COL. SHELDON GOLDBERG: I was thinking about that myself earlier.

And it seems to me that the old saying better late than never is even more appropriate.


LT. COL. SHELDON GOLDBERG: The fact is that they were recognized.

It shows us to be the country that we believe that we are, where everybody has an equal opportunity, has a chance to be recognized. And I think that, as I said, this is really a great day, I think, for all America, not just Jewish-Americans or African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans.

GWEN IFILL: What is it about, however, the Medal of Honor — they had all been recognized in some way in order — or they wouldn’t have even made it this far.


GWEN IFILL: What is it about the Medal of Honor which takes it to the next level?

LT. COL. SHELDON GOLDBERG: Well, that is the highest award that can be given for combat.

I mean, it’s, what they say, for above and beyond the call of duty, and I don’t think anybody aspires to it. I think, if you talk to these winners, you will find that they’re probably the most humble group of people that you would want to meet. I have had the privilege to meet several Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, and they’re just outstanding individuals.

GWEN IFILL: And they were quite humble today at the White House as well.


GWEN IFILL: Lieutenant Colonel Sheldon Goldberg, U.S. Air Force retired, thank you so much for helping us.

LT. COL. SHELDON GOLDBERG: Thank you for letting me come.