President Barack Obama and the White House paid tribute to U.S. soldiers by bestowing them with the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, March 18. Here is an excerpt of the President’s speech.
The presentation of our nation’s highest military decoration — the Medal of Honor — is always a special occasion. But today, it is truly historic. This is the single largest group of servicemembers to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the Second World War. And with several of these soldiers recognized for their valor during that war, this ceremony is 70 years in the making. As one family member has said, this is long overdue.
Many of these families — and I had a chance to meet all of them who are present here today — they’ve known these stories of heroism for decades. Still, they were pretty surprised when we called them to break the news about the Medal of Honor. Some of them thought it was a prank. Some of them thought it was a scam. A few of them thought it might be some trick to get their credit card number. When I called Melvin Morris — who we’ll recognize in a moment for his actions in Vietnam — his first reaction was, “Oh, my God, what have I done?” When I told him it was all good — the Medal of Honor — I could hear through the phone, he almost passed out.
You see, for their gallantry under fire each of these soldiers was long ago recognized with the Army’s second-highest award — the Distinguished Service Cross. But ask their fellow veterans, ask their families, and they’ll tell you that their extraordinary deeds merited the highest recognition. And today, we have the chance to set the record straight.
This ceremony reminds us of one of the enduring qualities that makes America great — that makes us exceptional. No nation is perfect, but here in America we confront our imperfections and face a sometimes painful past — including the truth that some of these soldiers fought, and died, for a country that did not always see them as equal. So with each generation we keep on striving to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality, and to recognize the dignity and patriotism of every person, no matter who they are, what they look like, or how they pray.
And that’s why, more than a decade ago, Congress mandated a review to make sure that the heroism of our veterans wasn’t overlooked because of prejudice or discrimination. Our military reviewed thousands of war records. They teamed up with veterans groups and museums to get this right. It was painstaking work, made even harder because sometimes our servicemembers felt as if they needed to change their last names to fit in. That tells a story about our past. But, ultimately, after years of review, these two dozen soldiers — among them Hispanic, African American and Jewish veterans — were identified as having earned the Medal of Honor. This is the length to which America will go to make sure everyone who serves under our proud flag receives the thanks that they deserve.
So this is going to be a long ceremony. We’re going to read all 24 citations, because every one is a story of bravery that deserves to be told. But first, I want to take just a few minutes to describe the Americans behind these actions, the men these families know — the brilliant lives behind the smiling faces in those old photographs, and how they reflected all the beauty and diversity of the country that they served.
They were Americans by birth and Americans by choice — immigrants, including one who was not yet even a citizen. They grew up in big city neighborhoods like Brooklyn, rural communities like Hooper, Nebraska, small towns in Puerto Rico. They loved to fish and play baseball. 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.
They fought in the rocky hills of Italy, the blood-stained beaches of France, in the freezing mountains of Korea, the humid jungles of Vietnam. Their courage almost defies imagination. When you read the records of these individuals, it’s unimaginable, the valor that they displayed. Running into bullets. Charging machine gun nests and climbing aboard tanks and taking them out. Covering their comrades so they could make it to safety. Holding back enemies, wave after wave, even when the combat was hand-to-hand. Manning their posts — some to their very last breaths — so that their comrades might live.
Of the 24 American soldiers we honor today, 10 never came home. One of them — Corporal Joe Baldonado, from the Korean War — is still missing, reminding us that, as a nation, we have a scared obligation to keep working to give the families of our missing servicemembers from all wars a full accounting of their loved ones.
Through their grief, the families of our fallen summoned the strength to carry on: wives whose hearts ached for their husbands; sons and daughters who grew up without their dad; nieces and nephews and grandchildren. These families join us here today. And they know, more than most, that because others laid down their lives for us, we’ve been able to live our lives in freedom, pursue our dreams. So there’s a legacy here born of sacrifice.
That includes a soldier’s nephew — a kid from New York, who grew up to become one of the great rock stars of all time and who honors his uncle here today. It includes soldiers who came home and took different paths — some continued to serve in uniform, some beginning new careers, some getting married and raising their kids, serving their communities, taking care of their fellow vets.
These veterans lived out their lives in the country that they helped to defend, and doing what they loved –like William Leonard, who at age 71 passed away in his backyard, sitting in his chair, listening to his beloved Yankees play on the radio.
And that’s where this story might have ended. But Mitchel Libman — a friend of one of these soldiers and an Army vet himself — set out on a mission. He and his wife Marilyn spent years writing letters and working with Congress and our military to get this done. And so we thank all those who worked so hard for so long to bring us to this moment, especially Marilyn and Mitchel — now 83 years old — who I’d ask to stand so that we can all say thank you.
Finally, of these 24 soldiers, three remain with us and have joined us here today — men who remind us that sometimes the heroes we seek are right in front of us, literally living right next door.
Most days, you can find Jose Rodela in his San Antonio home — a 76-year-old retiree who enjoys watching baseball on TV, and working on his 1975 Chevy pickup, and mowing the grass for his neighbors. Jose is such a humble guy that he did not even mention the ceremony to his neighbors — who I think would be pretty shocked to turn on the news tonight — (laughter) — and see that the guy who cuts their lawn is getting the Medal of Honor. Today, we remember how 32–year-old Sergeant First Class Rodela fought through his wounds in Vietnam and rallied his men during 18 hours of constant combat.
Most days, you can find Melvin Morris at home in Port St. John, Florida — 72 years old, a retired salesman and a great-grandfather. You’ll find him working on his boat, going fishing, reading the Bible, spending time with his beautiful wife Mary — married 53 years this month. You’re going to have to give me some tips. We’re not that far along yet. Today, we remember how 27-year-old Staff Sergeant Morris — one of our nation’s very first Green Berets — one of our very first Green Berets — think about that. I mean, that’s legendary — how Staff Sergeant Morris recovered a fallen comrade in Vietnam, took out several enemy bunkers, and kept going even after he was shot three times.
And on most days, you can find Santiago Erevia at home in San Antonio — he’s a 68-year-old retired postal worker. He’s fixing up his house, typically, tending to the garden, going on walks with his wife, or doing some push-ups to stay in shape. Today, we remember how 23-year-old Specialist Four Erevia, under a hail of bullets in Vietnam, gave first aid to his wounded comrades and single-handedly destroyed four enemy bunkers.
Credited source: White House