EL PASO, Texas - March 18 is a day three El Paso families will never forget.
Cpl. Victor H. Espinoza's family was in Washington D.C. to receive the Medal of Honor – the highest military decoration on behalf of their deceased loved one.
Espinoza was honored for his heroic actions in the Korean War.
It's been nearly 62 years since Cpl. Espinoza single-handedly silenced a machine-gun and its crew, discovered and destroyed a covert enemy tunnel, and wiped out two bunkers.
The other two soldiers with El Paso ties honored with the Medal of Honor March 18 were Spc. Four Jesus S. Duran and Master Sgt. Mike C. Pena. All three received the award posthumously. Read their biographies at the bottom of this article.
"I think if my uncle had received that back then I think his life would have been different but at the same time he wasn't the type of guy that wanted to be patted on the back for anything," Norma head, Espinoza's niece, said.
Sixteen of Espinoza's relatives flew to the nation's capitol to attend a White House ceremony.
The 24 recognized March 18 was made possible by a 2002 congressional order calling for review of military records of Jewish and Hispanic soldiers from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Lawmakers wanted to make sure they were not deprived of the medal because of prejudice.
President Barack Obama personally handed Cpl. Espinoza's award to his son, Tyron.
El Paso Korean War vet, Roy Aldridge, said the Distinguished Service Cross Espinoza was previously awarded should have been the Medal of Honor.
"To be given a lesser award because he's Hispanic is a travesty," Aldridge said.
"He was just always so happy and if he ever was angry or if he did ever have flashbacks, it never showed," Head said of her uncle, who volunteered to go to war and serve the U.S.
They were heroes who didn't get their due
On Tuesday, 24 ethnic or minority U.S. soldiers who performed bravely under fire in three of the nation's wars finally received the Medal of Honor that the government concluded should have been awarded a long time ago.
The Medal of Honor is awarded to members of the Armed Forces who distinguishes themselves conspicuously by gallantry above and beyond the call of duty while:
• engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States;
• engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or
• serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.
The servicemen - Hispanics, Jews and African-Americans - were identified following a congressionally mandated review to ensure that eligible recipients of the country's highest recognition for valor were not bypassed due to prejudice. Only three of the 24 were alive for President Barack Obama to drape the medals and ribbons around their necks.
"Today we have the chance to set the record straight," 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."
The three surviving recipients - Vietnam veterans Jose Rodela, Melvin Morris and Santiago Erevia - received a prolonged standing ovation at Obama's side, their faces set in somber acknowledgement of the honor.
Rodela, now of San Antonio, was a 31-year-old company commander of a Special Forces strike group on Sept. 1, 1969, in Phuoc Long Province, Vietnam, when he and his company of Cambodian soldiers whom he had helped recruit came under fire from North Vietnamese Army troops.
According to his Medal of Honor citation and supporting documents, the battle lasted 18 hours and 11 men in his company were killed and 33 others wounded.
The citation states that late in the battle, Rodela "was the only member of his company who was moving and he began to run from one position to the next, checking for casualties and moving survivors into different positions in an attempt to form a stable defense line. Throughout the battle, in spite of his wounds, Rodela repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to attend to the fallen and eliminate an enemy rocket position."
In an interview with the Army News Service last December, he said simply, "We trained for this and I would have done it again."
Morris of Cocoa, Fla., was a staff sergeant during combat operations on Sept. 17, 1969, near Chi Lang, South Vietnam. According to the Pentagon, Morris led soldiers across enemy lines to retrieve his team sergeant, who had been killed. He single-handedly destroyed an enemy force hidden in bunkers that had pinned down his battalion. Morris was shot three times as he ran with American casualties.
Morris received the Distinguished Service Cross in April 1970. That same month, he returned to Vietnam for his second tour.
"I never really did worry about decorations," Morris told The Associated Press last month. But he said he fell to his knees when he received the surprise call from Obama with news that he was to be honored.
Erevia, also of San Antonio, was cited for courage while serving as a radio-telephone operator on May 21, 1969, during a search-and-clear mission near Tam Ky, South Vietnam. He was a specialist 4 when his battalion tried to take a hill fortified by Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army soldiers. The Pentagon says he single-handedly silenced four Viet Cong bunkers.
As for the medal, he told the publication Soldier Live last month, "I'm only thankful I'm getting it while I'm alive."
Tuesday's mass ceremony, the largest since World War II, was the result of an Army review conducted under a directive from Congress in the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act. The law required that the record of each Jewish-American and Hispanic-American veteran who received a Service Cross during or after World War II be reviewed for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor.
The Pentagon said the Army reviewed the cases of the 6,505 recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars and found an eligible pool of 600 soldiers who may have been Jewish or Hispanic. The Army also worked with the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, the Jewish War Veterans of the USA and the American GI Forum, the largest Hispanic-American veterans group, to pinpoint potential medal recipients.
During the initial review, investigators found that other minority soldiers who had received the Distinguished Service Cross appeared to meet the criteria for a Medal of Honor. Congress amended the directive to allow those soldiers to be considered for the upgraded honor.
Jesus S. Duran was born, July 26, 1948, in Juarez, Mexico.
Duran joined the U.S. Army on May 13, 1968. He was assigned to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to support the efforts of Search and Destroy.
In the course of the third phase of the Vietnam War, then-Spc. 4 Jesus S. Duran distinguished himself on April 10, 1969, as a machine-gunner on a search and clear operation. His actions saved several wounded Americans and led to the enemy's retreat.
After leaving the military, Duran pursued a career as a corrections officer at a juvenile detention center in San Bernardino, Ca. While working there, he dedicated numerous hours of personal time to mentor youth and lead them on educational trips.
Duran married twice and had two children. He was the sixth sibling out of 12, and loved spending time with all of his family.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, Duran received the Distinguished Service Cross (this award will be upgraded to the Medal of Honor on Mar. 18), Bronze Star Medal, Air Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with four Bronze Service Stars, Combat Infantryman Badge, Sharpshooter Marksmanship Badge with Auto Rifle and machine-gun Bars, Marksman Marksmanship Badge with Rifle Bar, Vietnam Campaign Medal with "e;60"e; Device, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citations with Palm Device.
Victor H. Espinoza, was born in El Paso, Texas, July 15, 1929.
Then-Cpl. Victor H. Espinoza is being recognized for his actions on Aug. 1, 1952, at Chorwon, Korea. While spearheading an attack to secure "Old Baldy," Espinoza's unit was pinned down by withering fire from fortified positions. In daring succession, Espinoza single-handedly silenced a machine-gun and its crew, discovered and destroyed a covert enemy tunnel, and wiped out two bunkers. His actions inspired his unit and enabled them to secure the strong-point against great odds.
After leaving the Army, Espinoza resided in El Paso until his death on April 17, 1986. Espinoza is buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, Espinoza received the Distinguished Service Cross (this award will be upgraded to the Medal of Honor on Mar. 18), National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with one Bronze Service Star, Combat Infantryman Badge, United Nations Service Medal, and Republic of Korea-Korean War Service Medal.
Michael C. Pena was born in Newgulf, Texas, November 1924.
He joined the U. S. Army as an infantryman in 1941, when he was 16-years-old. He fought in both World War II and the Korean War.
Pena is being recognized for his actions on the evening of Sept. 4, 1950, near Waegwan, Korea, when his unit was fiercely attacked. During the course of the counter-attack, Pena realized that their ammunition was running out, and ordered his unit to retreat. Pena then manned a machine-gun to cover their withdrawal. He single-handedly held back the enemy until morning when his position was overrun, and he was killed.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, Pena received the Distinguished service Cross (this award will be upgraded to the Medal of Honor on Mar. 18), Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, Army Good Conduct Medal with Bronze Clasp and two Loops, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with four Bronze Service Stars and Bronze Arrowhead Device, World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal with Japan Clasp, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with one Bronze Service Star, Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Infantryman Badge (2nd Award), Honorable Service Lapel Button- World War II, Philippine Liberation Ribbon, Philippine Independence Ribbon, United Nations Service Medal, Republic of Korea-Korean War Service Medal, Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, Gold Bravery Medal of Greece Unit Citation.