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Four With Guard Ties Get Medal of Honor

Recipients were among 24 Veterans honored by President Obama in March 18 ceremony
SFC (Ret.) Melvin Morris, a former member of the Oklahoma National Guard, receives the Medal of Honor for his actions with the Active Army during the Vietnam War. Photo by SGT Justin Wagoner
SFC (Ret.) Melvin Morris, a former member of the Oklahoma National Guard, receives the Medal of Honor for his actions with the Active Army during the Vietnam War. Photo by SGT Justin Wagoner

After a Pentagon review determined racial prejudice had denied some service members their rightful honors, three former National Guard Soldiers and a fourth with Guard ties were awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in a ceremony March 18 at the White House.

Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris (above), Sergeant Santiago Erevia, Master Sergeant Juan Negron and Staff Sergeant Salvador Lara had previously received the Distinguished Service Cross for intrepid action. The March 18 event upgraded that commendation to the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for combat valor.

In all, 24 Army Veterans who served in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War received the award upgrade after the 12-year Pentagon review, which was ordered by Congress to ensure eligible recipients weren’t overlooked because of race.

Morris and Erevia were two of only three living recipients to be honored. The two Vietnam Veterans were joined by U.S. Army Master Sergeant (Ret.) Jose Rodela, also a Vietnam Vet, at the ceremony.

Obama invited each living Soldier to the stage, one at a time. Their citations were read, their Medals of Honor were draped, and handshakes were exchanged. “These are extraordinary Americans,” the president said. “They are exemplary Soldiers.”

Following the presentation, Obama called the three Veterans to the stage. “In the thick of the fight, all those years ago, for your comrades and your country, you refused to yield,” he said. “On behalf of a grateful nation, we all want to thank you for inspiring us—then and now—with your strength, your will and your heroic hearts.”

Morris, 72, who is African-American, joined the Oklahoma National Guard in 1959 and later requested to join the Active Army. He became a Green Beret and twice volunteered for deployments in Vietnam. 

He was recognized for his actions on Sept. 17, 1969, near Chi Lang. Then a staff sergeant, Morris led several advances across enemy lines to retrieve the body of a master sergeant and destroyed an enemy force that had pinned down his battalion from a series of bunkers. Morris endured wounds to the chest, arm and finger.

“I was in a few battles,” says Morris, of Cocoa, FL. “But nothing compares to that. Nothing.”

Among the 24 men who received the medal upgrade, 17 are Hispanic—a group that includes Erevia, Negron and Lara. Erevia, 68, of San Antonio, TX, is being honored for his actions on May 21, 1969, when he was a specialist 4 and serving as a radio-telephone operator during a search and clear mission near Tam Ky. With his unit pinned down, Erevia used two M16s and grenades to take out four enemy bunkers. 

“I thought I was going to get killed when I started to advance, because when you fight battles like that, you don’t expect to live,” Erevia told the Associated Press. After leaving Active Service in 1970, Erevia joined the Texas National Guard in 1972, and served for 17 years.

Negron was born in Corozal, Puerto Rico, and entered the Puerto Rico National Guard in 1948. On April 28, 1951, near Kalma-Eri, Korea, then-Sergeant Negron held the most vulnerable position on his company’s exposed right flank after an enemy force had overrun a section of the line. He held the position through the night, hurling hand grenades when hostile troops approached his position. Negron died in Puerto Rico in 1996.

Lara, from Riverside, CA, served in WWII with the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Division. On May 27–28, 1944, in Aprilia, Italy, then–Private First Class Lara led his rifle squad in neutralizing multiple enemy strong points and inflicted large numbers of casualties. The next morning, Lara sustained a severe leg wound but continued his exemplary performance. Lara, who suffered a nonbattle death in September 1945, is buried in France.

The upgraded honors occurred after Congress ordered a review of Jewish and Hispanic Veterans’ records from WWII, Korea and Vietnam to make sure they had not been overlooked because of prejudice. Of those selected for the upgraded honor, 18 fell under those guidelines. Six others, including Morris, were honored because the review indicated they also had been overlooked.

“I’m only thankful I’m getting it while I’m alive,” Erevia said a month before the ceremony.

“It’s an honor you never expect,” Morris says. “I’m overwhelmed. I still can’t comprehend it.”