Hispanic, Jewish soldiers from WWII, Korea, Vietnam to get Medal of Honor

McClatchy Washington BureauFebruary 21, 2014 

— President Obama will award the nation’s highest military honor to 24 mainly Hispanic and Jewish soldiers in conflicts going back to World War II in a congressionally mandated initiative to overcome past discrimination.

One of the recipients, Sgt. Candelario Garcia, was born in Corsicana, Texas, near Fort Worth.

A second honoree, Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz, has ties to Hollywood, Fla. Sen. Bob Nelson, Rep. Ted Deutch and former Rep. Robert Wexler, all Florida Democrats, pushed for recognition of Kravitz, who died while protecting members of his platoon against a Chinese attack during the Korean War.

“The heroic actions of Pfc. Kravitz clearly merit the highest honor the nation can bestow,” Nelson said.

The honoree was the uncle of singer and songwriter Lenny Kravitz, who is of African-American and Jewish descent.

“I am proud to have played a small part in ensuring that no veteran’s heroic service will be cast aside due to prejudice,” said Deutch, of Boca Raton.

A high school friend of Leonard M. Kravitz, Mitchel Libman, lives in Hollywood, Fla. He asked Nelson to seek a review of Kravitz’s Korean War record, Nelson said.

Among more than 3,400 Medals of Honor awarded since 1861, only 17 have gone to Jews, according to Sy Brody of Delray Beach, Fla., author of “Jewish Heroes of America.”

Garcia destroyed two enemy machine-gun positions after his unit had taken casualties and helped lead an assault on other enemy forces during the Vietnam War.

Abraham H. Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, hailed the decision to honor heroic solders from the past.

“In this instance, justice was delayed but not denied,” Foxman said.

The 2002 National Defense Authorization Act required the Pentagon to conduct a review of personnel records from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

In a separate Medal of Honor controversy, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that an Iraq war hero would not receive the medal despite the urging of lawmakers and veterans groups.

Backers of Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta say he died in the Second Battle of Fallujah after pulling a live grenade under his body to shield members of his unit from the blast.

Peralta received the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor a Marine can receive, in September 2008.

Hagel, saying he had reviewed the case closely, said he was the third Pentagon chief to determine that Peralta's actions didn't meet the standards for a Medal of Honor.

The 24 soldiers named Friday by the White House had previously received the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest honor. Those awards will be upgraded to the Medal of Honor as a result of the Pentagon review. All 24 served in the Army.

In a subsequent amendment to the 2002 law, Congress directed the Pentagon to include in its review soldiers who were not Hispanic or Jewish but whose valor may have been insufficiently recognized for other reasons.

One of the 24 new Medal of Honor recipients, Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris, of Cocoa, Fla., appeared to be African-American, based on a photo provided by the Army.

Morris is one of three honorees who are still alive among the 24 newly named Medal of Honor recipients, according to the White House.

Congress waived normal time limits that require a Medal of Honor to be bestowed within two or three years of the acts of valor, depending on the branch of military service.

Nothing in the original law said discrimination had to be the cause of the failure to give the 24 new honorees the Medal of Honor, but that was understood by focusing on Hispanic and Jewish soldiers.

In making its announcement, the White House said that “several soldiers of neither Jewish nor Hispanic descent” were found worthy of the Medal of Honor, but it did not immediately identify which of the 24 new recipients are Hispanic, Jewish or of a different ethnic or religious background.

Obama will present the Medal of Honor to the three living recipients and to relatives of the other 21 honorees March 18 in a White House ceremony.

Michael Doyle and Maria Recio of the Washington Bureau contributed.

Email: jrosen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: jamesmartinrose

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