House lawmakers are pushing for a Pentagon review of valor awards given out for service in World War I to ensure that minorities are getting the recognition they deserve.
Draft language of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act from the House Armed Services Committee, unveiled on Monday, pushes for the Defense Department to “review the service records of certain African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, Jewish American, and Native American war veterans to ensure that minority service members are appropriately recognized for their valorous service.”
In the Senate, a standalone bill was introduced in April by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), which calls for service secretaries to conduct a similar review of veterans of their branch. It has received bipartisan support, though a spokesperson for Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who is a cosponsor, told Task & Purpose that the language is not yet in the Senate's version of the NDAA, but could be added later.
Communications director for Van Hollen, Bridgett Frey, told Task & Purpose that the senator “continues to work with Senate leadership to push for passage of this important bipartisan legislation.”
To be eligible for the review, according to the Senate's legislation, the veteran must have been awarded either the Distinguished Service Cross or the Navy Cross for action; the Croix de Guerre with Palm by the French government; or been recommended for a Medal of Honor for action taken between April 6, 1917 and November 11, 1918.
The House Armed Services Committee's draft language lays out the same eligibility requirements, and says the service secretaries should consult with the Valor Medals Review Task Force, and other veteran organizations that the Secretary deems appropriate.
This falls in line with other efforts to recognize contributions from minorities to the defense of the U.S. In 2018, a group of historians and WWI experts began reviewing the issue to determine if systemic racism kept combat heroes from receiving the awards they reserved. And recently, California has taken steps to establish more memorials for minorities who served — recently designating an official memorial for LGBTQ veterans, and an American Indian & Alaska Native Veterans Memorial.
According to Politico, all Medals of Honor “went to white soldiers” after WWI, despite heroic actions from soldiers like those found in the famed 369th Infantry Regiment — which was made up almost entirely of African American soldiers — also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
Former President Barack Obama made awarding minority veterans a “priority” while in office, the New York Times reported in 2014, at one point awarding 24 Medals of Honor to Army veterans who had previously been denied. Obama also awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Sgt. Henry Johnson, a WWI hero who fought with the 369th. Despite Johnson's bravery in combat, he wasn't awarded the medal until almost 100 years after his service, in 2015.
“We are a nation — a people — who remember our heroes,” Obama said at the time, according to the Washington Post. “We never forget their sacrifice. And we believe that it's never too late to say thank you.”