How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

24 Latino and Jewish veterans, 6 from Southern California, awarded Medal of Honor

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Twenty-four veterans who were reconsidered for the nation's highest honor for bravery in combat will receive the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, the majority of them Latino.

The awards come decades after their service, after a lengthy review ordered by Congress of the files of more than 6,000 Latino and Jewish U.S. Army veterans. These soldiers had received the next-highest honor for their actions in combat, the Distinguished Service cross, but were passed over for the Medal of Honor because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

"Oftentimes, as history has proven, there is always some bias or subjective thought put into who should receive the award and who shouldn't, for various reasons," said Richard Valdez, a Vietnam veteran who is the California leader of Disabled American Veterans and was part of the push to recognize the soldiers. "And in these particular cases, these biases and subjective reviews were paramount to why they didn't receive the honor that they should have received."

Dubbed the "Valor 24," the soldiers who were deemed deserving of the medal served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Only three remain alive. They and the families of the others will be honored by President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony on Tuesday.

Valdez said he spoke with the family of one of the soldiers, Army Staff Sgt. Salvador J. Lara, shortly after the news was announced. 

Lara, who was from Riverside, died in World War II. He's one of six soldiers from Southern California receiving the medal. Lara's now-elderly surviving brother received the call from Washington, D.C.

"His niece had called me to let me know that her father had received a call from President Obama," said Valdez, who knows the family through his veterans' group. "And she thought it was a bogus call. When she was talking to her dad, she goes, 'I hope you didn't give him your credit card number.' "

Later they learned that it wasn’t a bogus call, after all. "It was actually the President who was calling," Valdez said.

An Army website details the 24 veterans' deeds of bravery that earned them the medal. From Salvador Lara's page, which describes his role in a battle in Aprilia, Italy, in May of 1944:

During the fight, May 27, he aggressively led his rifle squad in neutralizing multiple enemy strong points and inflicting large numbers of casualties on the enemy. The next morning, as his company resumed the attack, Lara sustained a severe leg wound, but did not stop to receive first aid. Lara continued his exemplary performance until he captured his objective.

Lara did not survive the war, and is buried in a military cemetery in France. Valdez said the family may now try to bring his remains home to the Riverside National Cemetery.

A list of all the "Valor 24" Medal of Honor recipients can be found here.

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