As if war doesn’t come with enough injustices, the United States has not always seen fit to honor those who made incredible sacrifices in defense of their country. A sad reality is that racial, religious and ethnic prejudice has sometimes determined who was worthy to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The medal is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force that is given to members of the U.S. armed services. The award, which was created by Congress and President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, has honored the nation’s most courageous fighters ever since, although some soldiers who qualified for it were overlooked.
In 2002, Congress ordered a review under the National Defense Authorization Act to make sure the Medal of Honor award process was as fair and inclusive as possible. That congressional insistence resulted in a ceremony Tuesday in the East Room of the White House in which President Barack Obama announced that it was time “to set the record straight.”
Twenty-four men, most of whom had racial, ethnic or religious minority backgrounds, were awarded Medals of Honor that should have been conferred decades ago for their selfless service. The names of overlooked Hispanics, Jews and African-Americans were finally added to the roll call of national heroes.
Unfortunately, 21 of the medals had to be awarded posthumously; only three of the honorees were alive to receive the nation’s belated thanks. Mr. Obama put medals around the necks of Vietnam veterans Jose Rodela, Melvin Morris and Santiago Erevia. They were gracious in insisting that their courageous acts in battle were not done for the purpose of recognition.
It is one thing for heroes to be modest, but it is the obligation of a great nation to recognize the heroic acts of its citizens, preferably while they are still alive.