“The real world is full of anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism and racism. The question is: Do we prepare students to accept the world as it is, or do we prepare them to change it?”
–Williams College administrator Ferentz Lafargue, in a Washington Post op-ed, March 28.
The obvious answer to that question is: We should prepare students to make the world better, of course. But how to do that?
One way is to teach them about resolve in the face of prejudice and discriminatory treatment. We’re thinking about the lives of three soldiers who died recently.
All had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest tribute America bestows on soldiers or sailors. These men, however, had to wait decades to be recognized.
Their heroics finally came to light because, more than a decade ago, Congress ordered a review of the war records of Jewish and Hispanic soldiers from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Under earlier legislation, the Pentagon also reviewed military records of Asian-Americans who fought in World War II.
The aim: Ensure that those who deserved a Medal of Honor were not denied because of prejudice. And so the nation has honored these men, among others whose military records have been revisited:
–U.S. Army Sgt. Santiago Jesus Erevia, who died March 22, was presented the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2014 for heroic action on the battlefield in 1969 during the Vietnam War. Erevia crawled from one wounded soldier to another, tending to their injuries, before charging four enemy bunkers. After Obama called him with the news of his award, Erevia told a reporter. “They say you deserve it. I'll take it in stride. And I'll jump in joy, but I’m going to jump in joy by myself in the bedroom.”
–Army Cpl. Tibor Rubin was awarded the medal for his Korean War service – in 2005 by President George W. Bush. Rubin, who died in December, was born in Hungary and survived a concentration camp as a teenager. He was rescued by U.S. soldiers and, to show his gratitude, he enlisted during the Korean War. In Korea, Rubin held a hill against an overwhelming assault by North Korean troops, allowing his fellow soldiers to retreat. Rubin was taken prisoner and sent to a POW camp. Because he had been born in Hungary, he was offered a chance to return to his homeland. He declined. He spent the next 30 months providing medical care – and pilfering extra food – for his fellow prisoners. Although his Medal of Honor was delayed 50 years because of anti-Semitism, he remained proud of his service and his adopted country. “It is the best country in the world and I am part of it,” he said.
–Army Pvt. George Sakato, who died the same week as Rubin, snagged his Medal of Honor in 2000. On a rescue mission behind enemy lines in 1944, Sakato single-handedly stopped an enemy attack while under withering fire. His medal was delayed for 56 years because of his Japanese ancestry. “I am American and I wanted to show my loyalty to the country,” Sakato said without a trace of rancor. As a boy, Sakato and his family moved from their California home to Arizona to avoid being placed in an internment camp following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was classified as an “enemy alien” even though he was a native Californian. He enlisted as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a World War II unit of 12,000 Nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) volunteers. It became one of the most highly decorated U.S. units – and suffered some of the highest casualty rates.
At the end of World War II, President Harry Truman expressed his gratitude to Sakato’s unit: “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you’ve won. Keep up that fight, and we'll continue to win. And make this great republic stand for just what the Constitution says it stands for – the welfare of all the people, all the time.”
Each of these soldiers fought to make the world a better place. Recognition of their bravery and exploits came late, but it did come. Terrible wrongs were corrected.
That’s how we make change – progress – happen.