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Local Latino Soldiers Receive Medal of Honor Decades after Heroism
By Michael Rojas
The Korean War occurred some 65 years ago, but its American veterans have not forgotten their experiences, especially if they lost good friends in battle. Korean War veteran Mitchel Libman, who is now 83, was convinced that his childhood friend from Brooklyn, Pfc. Leonard Kravitz, should have received the Medal of Honor but did not because he was Jewish.
Image caption: The U.S. Army Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation's highest medal for valor (File photo)
In a 2014 National Public Radio (NPR) interview with Audie Cornish, Libman described Kravtiz’s heroic acts in the Korean War. While under Chinese fire, his unit began a retreat. Kravitz stayed at his machine gun to protect his buddies, saving members of his platoon but dying during his effort in March 1951. Libman says, “And this is what makes him such a great hero, knowing that he was going to die, yet he was willing to give up his life.” Kravitz was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor, but Libman felt he deserved the highest award.
Libman and his wife Marilyn began a process that would take them more than a half century to convince the government that Kravitz deserved the Medal of Honor. After looking into Kravitz’s case, Libman found that there had been other Jewish-American soldiers who should have been considered for the award. Through Libman’s work with Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act of 2001 was drafted. Kravitz, incidentally, was the uncle of contemporary musician Lenny Kravitz, for whom he is named.
Journalist Matthew E. Berger wrote that the bill was later amended to include Hispanic veterans of Korea and was included in the 2002 Defense Authorization Act. Ashley Southall wrote in the New York Times that the investigation “was intended as an inquiry into prejudice against Jews and Hispanics, but was later broadened to include all veterans whose actions merited the medal.” The congressional order asked investigators to review the period from December 1941 through September 2001.
The Army alone would identify more than 600 records, and the other branches found 275 records that needed reassessment. After a 12-year inquiry, it was found that 24 veterans who had previously been awarded Distinguished Service Crosses for their gallantry had actually warranted a Medal of Honor, including Kravitz.
The Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor, was created during the Civil War. On December 9, 1861, Iowa Senator James W. Grimes introduced to the Senate a bill designed to encourage the efficiency of the Navy by authorizing the distribution of medals of honor. On December 21, President Lincoln signed this bill, called Public Resolution 82, containing provisions for a Navy Medal of Valor. The Congressional Medal of Honor home page states that this medal “was to be bestowed upon such petty officer, seaman, and marine as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry and other seamanlike qualities during the present war.”
Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson introduced a bill two months later with provisions for a similar medal for the Army. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society home page, “It would authorize the president to distribute medals to privates in the Army of The United States who shall distinguish themselves in battle.” On July 12, 1862, President Lincoln signed and Congress passed this bill into law and the Medal of Honor was created, becoming a permanent award in 1863. Today, there are three variations of the medal: one for the Army; another for the Air Force; and one for the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society in 2014 stated that since the 1860s, some 3,495 Medals of Honor have been awarded to members of all Department of Defense services. Of those, 88 have been awarded to African Americans, 59 to Hispanic Americans, 33 to Asian Americans and 32 to Native Americans. Individuals have fought over the years to have friends or relatives honored long after their military service. The Defense Authorization Act of 2002 led to the examination of many cases of minorities being denied or awarded medals of lesser grade.
From this investigation emerged two dozen veterans, all from the Army, who would qualify for the Medal of Honor. Seventeen of the 24 recipients were Hispanics and included two soldiers with local ties: Victor H. Espinoza and Jesus S. Duran, men who, because of their Latino roots, were not given proper recognition at the time of their service.
Image caption: El Pasoan Victor H. Espinoza fought in the Korean War, becoming a hero. (Photo from whitehouse.gov)
The early to mid-1900s was a harsh time for minorities and especially for Latinos in the Borderland. Many families were first- or second-generation Mexican Americans. The El Paso area was still awash in discrimination during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. This time was especially tough for young Latino men looking to create opportunities for themselves.
Guillermo Rojas, who grew up in the Smeltertown community during the 1940s and 1950s, a predominantly poor Hispanic area in South El Paso, said in a personal interview with this author, “I remember the white kids going to school in the upper west side schools such as Coronado. The poor Hispanics went to Bowie. We used to caddy [for] these kids’ parents [at the El Paso Country Club] who were the prominent El Paso figures at the time.” Rojas recalled the racial divide between Hispanics and Anglos in El Paso, which was predominantly Mexican American even then.
Though discrimination limited opportunities for minorities, one positive alternative lay in the armed forces. Rojas himself joined the Marine Corps in 1960 as a way of creating a future for himself while still serving this country. Similarly, Espinoza and Duran also joined the armed forces. In an article entitled “Fighting on Two Fronts: Latinos in the Military,” University of California Professor Lorena Oropeza wrote, “Latinos have not only taken tremendous pride in their record of military service, they have also adroitly used their status as soldiers and veterans to advance the equal treatment and integration of Latinos within U.S. society.” Yet after joining the services, many minorities were to discover that discrimination was still an issue.
Victor Hugo Espinoza was born on July 15, 1929, in El Paso, Texas. From the beginning, Espinoza had a particularly rough childhood. He and his brother David were orphaned at an early age. His father left his family when the two boys were young, and his mother died in her thirties, according to Aaron Montes of the El Paso Times. Wendy Brown wrote in the Fort Bliss Bugle that until Espinoza and his brother left for the Army, they were both in foster care.
Once in the Army, Espinoza distinguished himself as an excellent soldier. It was during his time in Korea that he would make his mark on history. A rifleman, Cpl. Espinoza served with Company A, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. According to the Medal of Honor News home page, on August 1, 1952, while securing “Old Baldy,” an enemy hill in Chorwon, Korea, he and his fellow soldiers were “pinned down by withering artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire from strongly fortified positions.”
Fully aware that the odds were against them and of the hazards that lay ahead of him, Espinoza decided to leave safety and take charge. He made a deliberate one-man assault on the enemy and silenced a machine gun and its crew. Douglas Sterner, Army Times writer, quoted General Orders No. 37 describing Espinoza’s actions: “Continuing up the fire-swept slope, he neutralized a mortar, wiped out two bunkers, and killed its defenders. After expending his ammunition, he employed enemy grenades, hurling them into the hostile trenches and inflicting additional casualties. Observing a tunnel on the crest of the hill which could not be destroyed by grenades, he obtained explosives, entered the tunnel, set the charge, and destroyed the tunnel and the troops it sheltered.”
Image caption: A new headstone at Fort Bliss National Cemetery for Victor H. Espinoza indicates that he received the Medal of Honor. (Photo by Naomi Iniguez)
Because of Espinoza’s actions, his unit was able to continue the attack and hold their position. Espinoza was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day in Korea. Remembering his award, David Espinoza, Victor’s brother, said to Aaron Montes of the El Paso Times, “When he received the Distinguished Service Cross, he did not say much about it. He was humbled and never tried to brag about it.” Pilar Arias, also writing for the El Paso Times, said that along with this award, Espinoza was also honored with the National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with one Bronze Service Star, the Combat Infantry Badge, the United Nations Medal and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
Espinoza retired from the Army with the rank of Master Sergeant. He returned to El Paso where he worked at the Dick Poe Toyota dealership, cleaning and buffing cars before he moved to the small town of San Gabriel, Texas, 50 miles northeast of Austin. There he married and had a daughter and son. Some years later, Espinoza returned to El Paso, living with his sister on the East Side until his death on April 17, 1986, at age 56. He was buried at Fort Bliss.
Tyronne Espinoza, Victor Espinoza’s son, accepted the Medal of Honor on behalf of his father in 2014. When asked about his reaction when he first heard the news, Tyronne said to Army Live writer Brittany Brown, “I was thinking it was about time and it is well deserved.” Although Espinoza did not live long enough to be awarded in person what was rightfully his, his legacy still resides in the lives of his loved ones. Family members recalled Espinoza’s love of cooking and singing. Tyronne also proudly said to Brown, “I live, eat and breathe the military. My father motivated me to consider serving my country. I actually joined the US Marine Corps.”
Espinoza’s brother David, also a Korean War veteran, attended the ceremony in Washington, D.C., along with other relatives. The two brothers as young men actually met for the first time in a long while in Korea, years after they had been in foster care, according to Brown.
Espinoza’s son told Montes, “For my dad, the war never ended.” Celia Lucero, his sister, said that Espinoza suffered from what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. There were no treatments for the condition then. His son said, “I don’t think words can explain how … hurt I am that he can’t accept it [the award].”
Image caption: Spc. 4 Jesus S. Duran courageously attacked the enemy in Vietnam, saving wounded soldiers. (Photo from the Fort Hood Sentinel)
Another local soldier to receive the Medal of Honor posthumously along with Victor Espinoza was Jesus S. Duran. Born in Juárez, Mexico, on July 26, 1948, Duran was the sixth of 12 siblings. Early in his childhood, Duran immigrated to Riverside, Calif., where he was raised. As a Mexican immigrant, Duran faced much discrimination during that time. Duran’s son, Chuy, said to Darrell R. Santschi, staff writer for the Riverside Press Enterprise, “[He] was born in Mexico and I don’t think that favored him.”
Duran joined the Army on May 13, 1968, at the age of 20. He was soon shipped off to Vietnam to serve with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Duran served as a machine gunner in his unit which was in charge of conducting search and destroy missions against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong.
On April 10, 1969, during the third phase of the Vietnam War, Duran’s actions would eventually lead to his Medal of Honor. While moving into an intricate enemy bunker, his platoon began to take heavy ambush fire from all sides. As his Medal of Honor citation reads, “With an M-60 machine gun blazing from his hip, Spc. 4 Duran rushed forward and assumed a defensive position.” Duran went on to obstruct the enemy with a barrage of machine gun fire, shooting directly into enemy foxholes and eliminating those who tried to flee. His actions saved several wounded soldiers and led to the enemy’s retreat.
Duran originally received the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest combat award. A few years later, the award was upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on that day. Santschi wrote that after Duran’s discharge from the Army, he returned to California. He married twice and had two children. In California, Duran pursued a career as a juvenile detention officer. He spent his time enjoying his family and mentoring young offenders and leading them on educational trips. In 1977, Duran was tragically stabbed to death in a Riverside bar.
Alma Brigandi, Duran’s wife, always believed Duran deserved the Medal of Honor although he never mentioned it. Duran’s daughter, Tina Duran-Ruvalcaba, received the Medal of Honor from President Obama on her father’s behalf. Although not born here in the United States, Duran fought for this country like many other immigrants. “He just wanted to better himself, to do something for his country. By joining the service, he was able to become a U.S. citizen,” Brigandi said to Santschi.
On March 18, 2014, in a ceremony inside the White House, these brave men and 22 others were finally recognized as they should have been for their heroic actions in the military. Had it not been for Mitchel Libman and his wife, the stories of these 24 men, including Kravitz, Espinoza and Duran, would not have made headlines all over the country. Although they answered the call when their country needed them, their country was not ready to see them as equals. Three of the 24 were still alive to accept the Medal of Honor in person.
Alex Leary of the Tampa Bay Times wrote that after awarding the medals, President Obama ended the ceremony acknowledging the Medal of Honor awardees with these moving words, “Today we have the chance to set the record straight. 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.”