Medal of Honor: 24 given overdue award 'to set the record straight'

President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to 24 Army veterans, three still living, who served in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam and were overlooked for the award because of discrimination.

Evan Vucci/AP Photo
Master Sgt. Jose Rodela is awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, March 18. Mr. Obama awarded 24 Army veterans the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry in recognition of their valor during major combat operations in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Master Sgt. Jose Rodela was 17 years old when he left his Corpus Christi home to join the Army. In September 1969 his company came under attack in Phuoc Long Province, Vietnam, and sustained heavy casualties.

Ignoring his own wounds, Sergeant Rodela braved enemy fire to assist his fallen comrades, according to a biography posted by the Army this month. In 1970, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor.

More than 45 years later, President Obama upgraded that award to the the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award, in a special White House Ceremony Tuesday afternoon.

Rodela was just one of 24 Army veterans to receive the Medal of Honor Tuesday. The unusual ceremony was the culmination of a 12-year review that found potential anti-minority bias in the awarding of commendations since World War II. All but three of the 24 recipients – among them Jews, Hispanics, and blacks – are now deceased.

While each of the so-called “Valor 24” received the Distinguished Service Cross for their services, they were passed over for the nation’s highest commendation. Until now.

In the East Room of the White House, Mr. Obama took a small step toward righting one of the nation’s historic wrongs. "Today we have the chance to set the record straight," he said.

Before beginning the ceremonial distribution of the medals, Obama shared with the crowd a bit about the men and the sacrifices that they made for their country.

“They were Americans by birth and Americans by choice,” he began, “They were sons who made their parents proud and brothers who their siblings looked up to. They were so young, many in their early 20s. And when their country went to war, they answered the call. They put on the uniform and hugged their families goodbye. Some of them hugged the wives and children that they’d never see again.”

The Army has posted biographies of each of the so-called “Valor 24” online so the public can read about their acts of heroism.

One such hero is Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, a Vietnam veteran and one of the country’s first Green Berets.

While commanding a strike force near Chi Lang, Vietnam, in September 1969, Sergeant Morris risked his own life to advance across enemy lines to retrieve a fallen comrade after his company came under fire. He was shot three times before he was able to return to safety. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in April 1970 and returned to Vietnam for a second tour later that month.

Mr. Morris reflected on that fateful day in a video interview with the Army News Service.

“I didn’t worry about the shooting. One of the two individuals I was with was wounded. I had to get them out and come back again,” he said. “I don’t know how many magazines I used or how long I fought until I decided I had to get out some kind of way, ‘cause I was by myself,” he recalled. “Luck was with me.”

More than 40 years later, Morris told the Army News Service that he was overwhelmed to learn that the president wished to honor him.

“To be honored in such a fashion, I just still can’t comprehend it, not yet anyhow.”

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