WASHINGTON - It took decades, congressional legislation and a review of thousands of war records, but two dozen veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam received the Medal of Honor on Tuesday from President Obama at an emotional White House ceremony.
"As one family member has said, this is long overdue," Obama told the single largest group of Medal of Honor recipients since 1945.
The presentation came after Congress in a 2002 defense bill ordered a review of thousands of war records to determine whether Latino and Jewish veterans were denied the nation's highest military decoration because of discrimination.
"I'm busting with pride," said Charles Baldonado, 77, whose brother Joe R. Baldonado was among those honored posthumously. Joe Baldonado, who was from Los Angeles, died at age 20 during a battle in Korea where he used a machine gun to drive back enemy troops as grenades exploded around him. Eventually, he was killed by one.
The Pentagon has not released the findings of its review or specified which Medal of Honor recipients were denied the medal because of discrimination. But in his remarks, the president spoke of setting wrongs right.
"This ceremony reminds us of one of the enduring qualities that makes America great," Obama said. "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."
Three living recipients - Santiago Jesse Erevia and Jose Rodela, both from San Antonio, and Melvin Morris of Florida, all Vietnam veterans dressed in uniform - and family members of posthumous honorees took turns standing by Obama as a military officer read aloud the citations. The citations described harrowing battle scenes.
"Their courage almost defies imagination," Obama said. "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."
Several family members choked up during the ceremony before a crowd that included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The recipients included non-Latino and non-Jewish veterans after the review turned up other recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest military decoration, whom the Pentagon said deserved 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," Obama said.
Obama had called Erevia, Rodela and Morris to tell them they would receive the honor. He also called family members of recipients who had died.
He said that when he called Morris, "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."
The president singled out Florida resident Mitch Libman, who was in attendance, for helping inspire the congressional-ordered review by trying to find out for decades why his childhood friend Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz of Brooklyn, N.Y., who remained at his machine gun in Korea until he was killed, never received the Medal of Honor. Kravitz's niece on Tuesday accepted it on behalf of her uncle, who also was the uncle and namesake of rock musician and actor Lenny Kravitz.
The Medal of Honor has been awarded to more than 3,400 recipients since it was established during the Civil War. The medal is bestowed "only to the bravest of the brave," the Army said.
Charles Baldonado, who lives in Apple Valley, Calif., knew his brother had been nominated for the Medal of Honor but could never find out why he didn't receive it.
He said he received a phone call from Obama notifying him that his brother would be receiving the nation's highest military honor. He said the president told him, "It's about time that he got it."
"It's a long time coming, but finally here," Charles Baldonado said.
On Wednesday, the Medal of Honor recipients will be added to the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes.
Follow this link for a complete list of the 24 Medal of Honor recipients.