DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A historic ceremony is taking place at the White House later today. President Obama will award the Medal of Honor to two dozen soldiers. Their service ranged from World War II to Vietnam and it's believed they may have been passed over for the Medal of Honor because of their race or ethnic background.

One of the soldiers is Santiago Erevia. He risked his life on an afternoon in May 1969, charging toward bunkers held by the North Vietnamese. NPR's Tom Bowman has his story.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Santiago Erevia was a cook back in 1968, working in small restaurants in Nevada and his native Texas. And he decided to join the Army, he said, to better himself, maybe go to school. It was the height of the Vietnam War. One of Erevia's close friends came back horribly wounded.

SANTIAGO EREVIA: He was missing both ears and lips and nose, and part of his leg and everything, you know. And I said well, poor kid. You know, I said maybe I can do something to help him out.

BOWMAN: Help him out by continuing his plans to enlist and fight, with a sense of fatalism.

EREVIA: I had already made up my mind that I was going to sign up. What happens, happens. You know, like, if it's meant to be, you know, it's meant to be.

BOWMAN: So he signed up and arrived in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. And then in late May 1969, Erevia and the rest of Charlie Company loaded onto helicopters and swept low over the rolling hills and jungles. Helicopter pilots nicknamed the area Death Valley. Two North Vietnamese regiments were dug in, on the outskirts of Tam Ky, a market town on the South China Sea. The soldiers' job was to clear them out. But one of their reconnaissance platoons just disappeared into the jungle.

DAVID GIBSON: This platoon came up missing. I got the orders from my battalion to attack.

BOWMAN: David Gibson was Charlie Company's commander. Gibson, Erevia and a few hundred soldiers stood at the edge of a rice paddy. They had to cross 200 yards of open ground. The troops charged ahead, climbed a ridge and fanned into the trees. Suddenly, North Vietnamese troops rose from the Earth - from bunkers, spider holes, trenches.

GIBSON: We were in amongst them. We were fighting at five and 10 feet.

BOWMAN: Gibson remembers the North Vietnamese soldiers covered in branches and leaves to conceal themselves.

GIBSON: Explosion after explosion, they were firing RPGs at us - throwing grenades, AK-47 fires. You know, to this day, I say it's a damn miracle. I don't know how any of us made it.

BOWMAN: Gibson said he caught glimpses of Specialist Erevia, just off to his left. Erevia and another soldier, Corporal Patrick Diehl, slammed themselves against a tree for protection.

EREVIA: Diehl stuck his head out and he got a bullet right in his forehead. You know, I said, well, what am I going to do just stay here and get killed.

BOWMAN: So Erevia left the cover of the tree and ran straight toward the North Vietnamese, hidden in bunkers.

EREVIA: I zigzagged, firing my M-16. I thought I was going to get killed instantly, you know.

BOWMAN: He said he was scared but just focused on what he had to do: Take out the bunkers with his grenades and rifle - four bunkers, one by one.

EREVIA: One of the NVA soldiers stood up. I was about maybe two or three feet away from him. And then I shot him point blank with my M-16, and end of story.

BOWMAN: And end of the battle. Erevia helped care for the wounded, loaded the dead on helicopters. He was put in for the Medal of Honor by his platoon leader and Captain Gibson signed off on it. But in the end it was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. Back then, the Medal of Honor often seemed out of reach.

GIBSON: You just about have to be shot up or killed to get it.

BOWMAN: That May afternoon outside Tam Ky faded to memory for Erevia, until his phone rang last summer.

EREVIA: President Obama called me back in July of this past year. He was looking into my citation and he truly believed that I should have gotten the Medal of Honor. And he was going to see that I would get the Medal of Honor.

BOWMAN: This afternoon, in the East Room of the White House, nearly 45 years later, President Obama will present that medal to Santiago Erevia.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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