On this day in 2014, twenty-four soldiers are belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House. A congressional investigation had determined that these veterans were denied the Medal because of their heritage.
An old wrong was finally made right! Unfortunately, only three veterans were alive to receive their Medals in person that day.
The ceremony might never have happened but for the tireless efforts of one man: Korean War veteran Mitchel Libman, an old childhood friend of one of the honorees. He and his friend had both gone to war. One survived. The other did not. Leonard M. Kravitz instead sacrificed himself to provide cover for his retreating comrades. (See March 6 history post.)
Libman discovered what had happened to his friend because of a long-time tradition within their community. A neighborhood candy store had become a posting board of sorts for local news. Not too long after Libman returned from Korea, he read a note at that store, notifying the community that Kravitz had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Libman knew details of what Kravitz had actually done, and the award began to nag at him.
“When somebody gets the Distinguished Service Cross, they’re very proud of it. It’s the second-highest award. You don’t usually argue about it,” Libman would tell reporters. “But I knew better. I knew what he deserved.”
Libman embarked on a crusade that would span decades. “I found out,” he later said when they didn’t want somebody to get the Medal of Honor, they gave them the Distinguished Service Cross, and of course he wouldn’t complain. And that’s what pushed me over [the edge].”
During the 1990s, Libman got his Congressman, Robert Wexler of Florida, involved. Wexler introduced the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act of 2001. That legislation eventually prompted more congressional investigation into the possibility that some veterans had been denied the Medal of Honor because they were Jewish, Hispanic, or black.
Some aspects of the government’s review were complicated by the passage of time, the deaths of participants, and records that had been lost in fires. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the investigation took years. Finally, though, it was determined that nearly 20 men had received a lesser award than they otherwise would have because of their heritage. A few additional cases were also found in which a man was overlooked for some other reason.
In 2012, President Barack Obama gave Libman a call to tell him that his friend would finally be receiving the Medal.
“‘You know, this is not something we can do overnight,’” Libman recalled Obama saying, “‘We can’t do it next week.’” Libman responded jovially: “‘That’s fine, the week after would be great.’” The President, Libman recounted, “totally cracked up.”
On March 18, 2014, a ceremony was finally held in the White House for the 24 long-forgotten soldiers. By then, Libman was 83 years old. He’d spent much of his life campaigning for proper recognition for his friend.
He was wildly successful, to say the least. He’d obtained recognition not only for his friend, but also for 23 others.
In the end, both Kravitz and Libman accomplished their missions, didn’t they?
Daniel Rothberg, Obama will award Medal of Honor to 24 overlooked Army veterans (L.A. Times, Feb. 21, 2014)
Interview with Mitchel Libman and Marilyn Libman (March 17, 2014) (available through the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, U.S. Army)
Joseph Straw, War pal fought for 60 years to get Medal of Honor for Leonard Kravitz and other overlooked veterans (NY Daily News, March 22, 2014)
Juliet Eilperin, 24 veterans receive the Medal of Honor from President Obama (Wash. Post, March 18, 2014)
Lisa Ferdinando, Lenny Kravitz honors uncle, Medal of Honor recipient (U.S. Army website, March 18, 2014)