WASHINGTON — Uncommonly brave men and their loved ones gathered in the White House for belated recognition Tuesday, as President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to 24 standout soldiers.
Three medals were presented to living recipients, two Texans and a Floridian, who fought in the Vietnam War. The other 21 honors, the nation’s highest for martial valor, were presented posthumously for deeds going back to World War II and the Korean War.
There was a reason, though not a very good one, why some of the medals came so late.
“This is long overdue,” Obama said. “Some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal.”
The Army usually imposes a three-year limit for the Medal of Honor. In 2002, though, Congress used a defense authorization bill to order re-examination of older decorations that may have been improperly withheld from Jewish or Hispanic soldiers. The review subsequently expanded to include others, as well.
In each case, the Army examined records of those who had received the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest medal.
“It’s exciting to know he’s finally getting recognized after all these years,” said Reedley, Calif., resident Dominga Cano Perez, the daughter of the late Army Pvt. Pedro Cano. “I was 9 years old when he died, so there is not much I can say about him personally, much less about the war.”
A native of Mexico recognized for his World War II service, Cano was one of six Medal of Honor recipients Tuesday to have been born outside of the continental United States. Four were born in Puerto Rico.
“This is the single largest group of service members to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the Second World War,” Obama said. “Their courage almost defies imagination.”
The late Army Pvt. Miguel Armando Vera, for instance, was born in Puerto Rico and joined the U.S. Army when he was 17. Vera was recognized for what he did at Chorwon, Korea, on Sept. 21, 1952.
According to the Army’s account, Vera and the men of Company F, 2nd Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, were scrambling up the bare, rocky slopes of a murderous place called “Old Baldy.” When they they came under heavy artillery and mortar barrage and were forced back, Vera stayed behind to cover the troops’ withdrawal.
Vera died. Others lived.
His nephew, Joe Rodriguez of Florida, stood in for his fallen uncle Tuesday.
Each of the three living recipients Tuesday donned uniforms they had long since put away. They stood at attention, just as they remembered it, as their citations were read and Obama placed the medal around their necks.
Now a resident of San Antonio, Texas, former Army Sgt. Santiago J. Erevia was honored for his actions in May 1969 while serving as a radio telephone operator with Company C, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. He retired as a postal worker in 2002.
The other two living recipients are both former Green Berets.
Another San Antonio resident, former Master Sgt. Jose Rodela was singled out for his heroism of Sept. 1, 1969, when he commanded his company throughout 18 hours of continuous combat.
A resident of Cocoa, Fla., former Sgt. First Class Melvin Morris was honored for what he did on Sept. 17, 1969. According to the Army, he was shot three times as he “led an advance across enemy lines to retrieve a fallen comrade and single-handedly destroyed an enemy force that had pinned his battalion from a series of bunkers.”
“When I called Melvin Morris, his first reaction was, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?” Obama recounted Tuesday. “When I told him it was the Medal of Honor, I could hear through the phone he almost passed out.”
The other 21 medals were presented posthumously; in many cases to men who never came back.
Ardie R. Copas, from Fort Pierce, Fla., joined the Army on June 18, 1969. He distinguished himself on May 12, 1970, when he repelled an enemy ambush while serving as a machine-gunner near Ph Romeas Hek, Cambodia. He died in the attack.
Others survived their wars, though some with unseen scars.
Candelario Garcia, born in Corsicana, Texas, on Feb. 26, 1944, enlisted in the Army on May 28, 1963. On Dec. 8, 1968, Garcia destroyed two enemy machine-gun positions in an attempt to aid casualties that were in the open and under fire.
He returned to Corsicana, about 80 miles southeast of Fort Worth. His friends there knew him as “Spider” and watched as he struggled through what one told the Corsicana Daily Sun were postwar “problems.” He passed away on Jan. 10, 2013. The command sergeant major of the 1st Infantry Division accepted the award on Garcia’s behalf Tuesday.
Of those who survived their wars, silence was a common virtue.
On Oct. 19, 1951, when his platoon came under attack near Kumson, Korea, Army Sgt. Jack Weinstein volunteered to stay back and provide cover while his men withdrew. The Missouri native killed six enemy combatants and, after running out of ammunition, used enemy grenades around him to keep the enemy forces back. Weinstein held his position until friendly forces moved back in and pushed the enemy back.
After a year and a half in Korea, Weinstein returned home. He married and settled in St. Francis, Kan., working as a truck driver and farmer. He passed away in 2006, survived by, among others, his wife, five children, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
“He was just doing his job,” Weinstein’s widow, Nancy Weinstein, told the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “That is the way he did everything.”