As if war doesn’t come with enough injustices, the United States has not always honored those who made incredible sacrifices to defend their country. Racial, religious, and ethnic prejudice has sometimes determined who received the Congressional Medal of Honor, and who didn’t.
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, created by Congress and President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, has honored the nation’s most courageous fighters, although some soldiers who qualified for it were overlooked.
In 2002, Congress ordered a review to make sure the Medal of Honor award process was as fair and inclusive as possible. That insistence resulted in a White House ceremony this week, during which President Obama said it was time “to set the record straight.”
Twenty-four men, most of them members of racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, were awarded Medals of Honor that should have been conferred decades ago. The names of overlooked Hispanics, Jews, and African-Americans were finally added to the roll 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 graciously insisted 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 nation to recognize the heroic acts of its citizens — preferably while they are still alive.