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24 Can't Settle Score: Latino Vets See Racism Despite Medals

Image: Eduardo Corral Gomez, Juan E. Negron, Mike C. Pena
These images provided by the U.S. Army show Korean War veterans, from left, Sgt. 1st Class Eduardo Corral Gomez, Master Sgt. Juan E. Negron and Master Sgt. Mike C. Pena. U.S. Army via AP

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One man slithered across an open field toward a manned tank, climbed atop and chucked in a grenade, saving his exposed company.

Two others held their ground — each alone — firing into enemy thickets while fellow troops escaped and until the heroes, inevitably, were killed.

For decades, those three soldiers, and many like them, were denied the U.S. military’s highest decoration, veterans' advocates claim, simply due to the last names on their uniforms: Gomez, Pena and Vera.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will award the Medal of Honor to 24 Army veterans — 17 Latinos (including Sgt. Eduardo C. Gomez, Master Sgt. Mike C. Pena and Pvt. Miguel A. Vera) plus five Jewish vets.

The ceremony ends a Congress-ordered review of old battlefield heroism potentially overlooked by past commanders due to ethnic prejudices.

But when it comes to that elite, gold-plated star — awarded for valor “beyond the call of duty” — some Latino veterans say such racial biases remain entrenched at the Pentagon.

“This recognition was long overdue. Too bad only three of the 24 are still living,” said Richard Valdez, 66, head of the Disabled American Veterans in California and a retired Marine.

“I suspect there are others” of Latino descent who are similarly worthy.

The latest recipients served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. All previously had earned the military’s second-highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross. Since the Civil War, fewer than 3,500 of the Medals of Honor have been granted. But some critics have long asserted the top commendation has been steered by ethnic favoritism.

Image: Three Surviving Veterans To Receive Medals Of Honor After Decades Of Discrimination
U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Jose Rodela will receive the Medal of Honor Tuesday for his actions while serving in Vietnam.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

In 1993, the Army contracted with Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. to study whether “racial disparity” had influenced the citation’s winners. Shaw researchers indeed found evidence of inequalities: No African-American soldiers, for example, had received the ribbon during World War II.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton granted Medals of Honor to seven black soldiers, six posthumously.

“Dead people can’t jump 10 yards to put a grenade under their body ... This gives you an idea of the discrimination Latinos encounter.”

In 1996, Congress directed the Army to review the combat feats of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who’d earned the Distinguished Service Cross during World War II and “determine whether any … should be upgraded.”

In 2000, Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to 22 Asian-Pacific Americans, including Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.

“We’re kind of an afterthought, like everyone else had to get theirs first,” said Ruben Treviso, 67, a retired Army sergeant who served in Vietnam during 1971 and 1972. He’s also past national director of the American GI Forum, an organization that addresses discrimination against Hispanic veterans. “It was like, ‘Let’s throw a couple of Mexicans in there,’ so the Latinos got included.

“There’s been racism that Latinos encounter in receiving the Medal of Honor. And it’s still ongoing. A lot of guys (in the military, particularly in the higher ranks) don’t think we can speak English. They think we’re all immigrants,” added Treviso, who was born in the United States in lives near Los Angeles.

A poster child for their modern argument is Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta. According to five of Peralta’s fellow Marines, he fell onto a live grenade in 2004, absorbing the blast and saving them as the unit was checking houses in Fallujah, Iraq. Peralta, 25, was killed. Those five battle buddies nominated Peralta for the Medal of Honor.

Three consecutive defense secretaries, including Chuck Hagel, have reviewed medical examiners’ reports and ruled Peralta had — just a second before falling — been mortally wounded by enemy fire, leaving him incapable of pulling the grenade under his body.

But those pushing Peralta’s candidacy continue to blame that Pentagon stance on politics. Peralta, born in Mexico, had entered the United States illegally to attend school in San Diego. He joined the Marines when he got his legal residency card.

“Dead people can’t jump 10 yards to put a grenade under their body,” Treviso said. “This gives you an idea of the discrimination Latinos encounter.”

Hagel announced Feb. 21 he would not reopen the nomination for Peralta, stating that a review of the “totality of evidence” did not meet the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for the award.

“The Department is fully committed to recognizing our combat heroes — regardless of race or gender,” Pentagon spokesman Nathan Christensen said via email Monday. “Diversity is a source of strength for the Department of Defense. Diversity encompasses more than race and gender — we seek to include diversity of thought, background, language, culture and skills.

“Our force comes from a diverse populous, and certainly our military is better served when it reflects the nation it serves,” Christensen wrote. “Specifically, in the case of the Medal of Honor – the standard for the Medal of Honor is extremely high, as one would expect.”

But for some Latino veterans, the Peralta case continues to embody the ethnic bias they say they see atop the military.

In California, Valdez believes he understands the protective instinct Peralta felt in his final seconds. He, too, once dove onto what he thought was a live grenade — in Vietnam in 1967, he said. He quickly realized, however, that the grenade that had landed near his feet had simply become unscrewed from a fellow Marine’s belt and was not armed.

“My gunnery sergeant grabbed me by my flak jacket and said a few choice words, basically, ‘Idiot. Get back in line.’ And that was it,” Valdez said.

Did he even get a slap on the back that act of bravery?

“Uh, no, just a swift kick in the ass,” said Valdez, who reached the rank of corporal and later earned a Purple Heart medal after being shot in the knee. “I wouldn’t say (if that sergeant's reaction was racially motivated). I’d just be speculating on ‘what ifs.’ At the time, it never entered my mind. I was just glad it didn't go off.

“Some vets I've mentioned this story to comment in wonderment why, at the very least, I wasn't awarded a commendation medal. My reply has been: ‘You know how that goes: (stuff) happens.’ "

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