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SIEGEL: Right now, a story about honor delayed but, in the end, not denied. This afternoon, President Barack Obama awarded 24 Americans the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for valor. And this is a unique group. They are soldiers, mostly Jews and Hispanics, who should have gotten the Medal long ago for service in Vietnam, Korea, World War II.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.
SIEGEL: The recognition follows a 12-year Pentagon inquiry into possible discrimination in the selection of Medal of Honor recipients. In a moment, we'll hear from the man who spearheaded that effort to honor these troops.
First, NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on today's ceremony.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The Medal of Honor is often awarded posthumously. It's for courage in the face of enemy fire, courage that amounts to total disregard for one's own life.
JOSE RODELA: No, I didn't think about getting killed. I was thinking about recovering the men that were shot.
LAWRENCE: Jose Rodela is one of the three living recipients honored at the White House today. He remembers some of the day, 44 years ago, when North Vietnamese troops bombarded his company for 18 hours.
RODELA: Sounded like hand-grenades going off everywhere.
RODELA: That's what it sounds like. I was wounded but I still kept going. It was in my back and my arms but I didn't think about that. When you're in combat, either you're going to kill the people or they're going to kill you. So I was out to get them because I had already lost my recon team, you know.
LAWRENCE: Despite his wounds, Rodela kept tending to his men. Forty-two soldiers fell around him. He was later awarded the second highest combat medal, the Distinguished Service Cross, or DSC.
RODELA: I didn't even think about the Medal of Honor. I was surprised I got the DSC. It's something special.
LAWRENCE: Rodela says he never thought there was discrimination involved. And that's a typical response from medal holders. They say many others did the same things they did but got even less recognition.
Retired General Robert Scales is a military historian who earned a Silver Star in Vietnam.
GENERAL ROBERT SCALES: I think every senior officer can think of a soldier who exhibited enormous courage under fire and was never rewarded.
LAWRENCE: The Pentagon has investigated racism in the selection for awards before. Under the Clinton administration, medals were upgraded for African-Americans and Asian soldiers who had served in World War II. Then in 2002, Congress directed the Pentagon to reexamine Jewish and Hispanic recipients of the DSC, to see if they had been overlooked. That review also turned up soldiers of other ethnicities.
Scales says it's a way for the military to atone.
SCALES: I think it should be seen by the American people as an institution making up for past transgressions. And hopefully, as we move into the future, and God forbid, do this again, that young men and soon women who find themselves in close combat will know that their valor will always be recognized, regardless of where they came from or regardless of their ethnicity or their background.
LAWRENCE: The soldiers honored today served as long ago as World War II. Like First Lieutenant Donald K. Schwab, a Jewish GI who rushed a German machine gun three times and finally, single-handedly, ripped the lid off the gunner's shelter, clocked the Nazi soldier with his rifle butt and dragged the man back across American lines as a prisoner.
Schwab died nine years ago but his family was at the White House today, along with all the other honorees, their families or friends, to accept the medal a long time coming.
Quil Lawrence NPR News.
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