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Mexican American hero of WWI up for Texas' highest military honor

Marcelino Serna, who died in 1992, is credited with singlehandedly capturing 24 soldiers. He was nominated to be awarded the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor.
Marcelino Serna, the first Mexican American soldier to receive the Distinguished Service Cross and one of the most decorated Texans of World War I.
Marcelino Serna, the first Mexican American soldier to receive the Distinguished Service Cross and one of the most decorated Texans of World War I.Courtesy Texas Historical Commission; NBC News

Deprived for years of full recognition for his bravery in World War I, Marcelino Serna, a former Army private, was chosen by a Texas legislative committee on Friday to be posthumously awarded the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor.

Serna, a Mexican immigrant, is often considered Texas' most decorated WWI veteran. He is credited with singlehandedly charging and capturing 24 soldiers, but further research has found other acts of bravery.

His wartime acts have re-emerged as Latino advocates and lawmakers wage a campaign for him to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, which the groups say he has been denied for decades because of racism and xenophobia.

"Awarding Serna the Medal of Honor in Texas is long overdue and I think our state and our country must, must right another injustice to honor Serna for his conspicuous gallantry," said Texas state Sen. César Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso, who is a Navy veteran and sponsored a resolution calling for Serna to receive the award.

Serna earned the Distinguished Service Cross, two Croix de Guerre with Palm from France and the Croce al Merito di Guerra from the Italian government.

A bipartisan Texas state House and Senate committee voted unanimously to give Serna the medal. It also nominated William R. Flores, a seaman apprentice who served in the U.S. Coast Guard and died while trying to save shipmates in the 1980 sinking of the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn.

Two medals are given out each session, one for someone who served before 1956 and one who served after. There were five people considered this year.

The committee's choices must be approved by the full Senate and House, but they generally uphold the committee's deliberations.

Commander M.R. McKinney, Marcelino Serna, Diana Stopani, Mrs. M. Serna, and Major Bernard L. Mourlevat.
M.R. McKinney, Marcelino Serna, Diana Stopani, Mrs. M. Serna, and Maj. Bernard L. Mourlevat.Courtesy Texas Historical Commission

A Department of Defense document states Serna was told by an officer that he had to be of higher rank than a "buck" private, the lowest rank, to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Serna had been told he was denied a promotion in rank that would qualify him because he could not read or write English well enough to sign reports.

Serna was born in 1896 in a mining camp outside of Chihuahua City, Mexico. He immigrated to El Paso, Texas, in 1915, worked on a railway and later worked as a seasonal farm laborer in Colorado, according to historical articles gathered to support his petition.

Serna was exempt from serving in the war but chose to join. He was wounded in the war and returned home to El Paso. Serna died in 1992 and is buried in the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso.

The American GI Forum, which advocates for Latino veterans and others, have been waging a campaign for Serna to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Last year, Congress ordered the Pentagon to review records of Latino, Black, Asian, Native American and Jewish World War I soldiers to determine if they were denied the Medal of Honor because of their race or religion and should be awarded the medal.

A similar review, ordered in 2002, was done for military personnel of later wars. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded 24 veterans the medal, all but three posthumously. Many of those recipients were Latino.

Lawrence Romo, American GI Forum national commander, said Serna "whole-heartedly deserves the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor posthumously."

Bestowing the honor on Serna would "allow his descendants and fellow Texans to recognize his heroic deeds."  

Established in 1997, the medal is embossed with the Alamo and other symbols of the Texas Revolution circled by six flags that have flown over what is now the state of Texas, including the Confederate flag.

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