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Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, Master Sgt. Jose Rodela and Spc. Santiago J. Erevia stand on stage after receiving the Medal of Honor from President Obama during a ceremony at the White House on March 18. The three Vietnam veterans, plus 21 others from World War II, Korea and Vietnam soldiers, were all previously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross but denied the Medal of Honor due to prejudice. (Mike Morones/Staff)
When Pfc. Leonard Kravitz was killed in Korea, his childhood friend Mitchel Libman was crushed.
But as Libman learned about what his friend did on the battlefield, he began a years-long journey that culminated Tuesday when Kravitz and 23 others belatedly were awarded the Medal of Honor.
“This is the proudest I’ve ever been,” Libman said. “This was one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done in my lifetime, and I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to do it.”
Libman is widely credited as the man who pushed for what would become a sweeping review of records from World War II, Vietnam and Korea to ensure those deserving the nation’s highest award for valor were not denied because of their race or ethnicity.
On Tuesday, 24 soldiers from those wars —three of them still living — were recognized and honored during a White House ceremony hosted by President Obama. The Medal of Honor was presented posthumously to the families of the 21 soldiers who have died.
“For their gallantry under fire, each of these soldiers was long ago recognized with the Army’s second highest award, but ask their fellow veterans, ask their families, and they’ll tell you their extraordinary deeds merit the highest recognition,” Obama said during what he called a “historic” ceremony. “Today we get the chance to set the record straight.”
Each of the 24 honorees previously received the Distinguished Service Cross; that award will be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Congress, through the Defense Authorization Act, called for a review in 2002 of Jewish American and Hispanic American veteran war records from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War to ensure those who deserved the Medal of Honor were not overlooked because of prejudice.
During the review, records of several soldiers of neither Jewish nor Hispanic descent were also found to have criteria worthy of the Medal of Honor. The 2002 Act was amended to allow those soldiers to be honored with the upgrade as well.
“Some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal,” Obama said. “With each generation, we keep on striving to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality.”
The review of thousands of veterans’ records involved “painstaking work,” but “this is the length to which America will go to ensure everyone who serves under our proud flag receives the thanks they deserve,” Obama said.
On Tuesday, Obama first honored Vietnam veterans Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, Master Sgt. Jose Rodela and Spc. Santiago Erevia, the three living recipients in the group of 24.
Dressed in the Army Service Uniform, the distinctive medal draped around their necks, all three men stood together in what Obama called “a remarkable moment.”
“In the thick of the fight all those years ago, for your comrades and your country, you refused to yield,” Obama said. “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.”
The ceremony then focused on the 21 soldiers who have died. Military aides read every citation as the president presented the Medal of Honor to a member of each soldier’s family.
“Every one is a story of bravery that deserves to be told,” Obama said. “When you read the records of these individuals, it’s unimaginable, the valor that they displayed.”
Libman, who also served in Korea, said he first began his quest when he read about how Kravitz died.
“When I got some of his papers and started reading what he actually did, the Distinguished Service Cross, which was the second highest award, I didn’t feel was the proper one for Lenny,” Libman said. “And I determined that award was used when they didn’t want to give someone the Medal of Honor.”
Kravitz, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1931, was honored for his actions March 6-7, 1951, in Yangpyong, Korea.
While occupying defensive positions, Kravitz’s unit was overrun by enemy combatants and forced to withdraw, according to Army accounts.
Kravitz volunteered to remain at a machine-gun position to provide suppressive fire for the retreating troops. This forced the enemy to concentrate their attack on Kravitz. The 20-year-old did not survive, but his actions saved his entire platoon.
Libman decided he would fight for recognition for his “nice, quiet” friend. Pursuing this also helped him cope with his friend’s death, Libman said.
“I went in [to Korea] after Lenny was killed. I was stationed right close by where he spent his last days,” he said. “I was, of course, very upset over his death, and couldn’t think very much about anything else. This was the easiest way to get it out of my head.”
Now that his friend — and 23 others — have received the honor so long denied them, Libman said he’s proud but he’s also at a loss.
“It’s hard getting over the fact that it’s been 50 years and it’s finally done,” he said. “I’m wondering what I’m going to do next.”
Marilyn, Libman’s wife of 57 years, said she’s proud of her husband and the group of honorees.
“We proud of all the recipients,” she said. “I’m sorry it took so long to happen, but the fact that it did happen and they’re all getting recognition is a wonderful thing. We’re very happy that it’s finally come to fruition.”