Last Tuesday, Lenny Kravitz received a posthumous Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry. Not the rocker/actor but his uncle for whom he was named. The elder Lenny Kravitz, who fought in Korea, proved an exemplar of courage. Decades after his death in combat, he also demonstrated what can go wrong in America—and right.
According to a National Public Radio report, Private First Class Kravitz manned a machine gun to cover his unit as it withdrew from a Chinese attack. He knew that he himself would not be able to retreat. He held off the Chinese assault long enough to enable members of his unit to escape and regroup—at the cost of his life. He posthumously received the Army’s second highest medal, the Distinguished Service Cross.
All this sounds like a sad yet ennobling battlefield tale. And the DSC certainly recognized PFC Kravitz’ heroism. But a friend of Kravitz, Michael Libman, now 83 and also an Army veteran, suspected something was wrong. “It took me a while to realize what was happening or what I thought was happening,” Libman told Audie Cornish on NPR’s All Things Considered. “And I had to find out, you know, just what to do about it to find out if I was right or wrong.”
What Libman found out was that a substantial number of men who received the Distinguished Service Cross had met the same criteria as those awarded the Medal of Honor. Except, that is, for one thing.
It appears that senior commanders hesitated to recommend Jews and other minorities for the Medal of Honor, although two-dozen Jews had been awarded the medal since its inception during the Civil War. Libman worked for decades to uncover the truth. Of 6,505 recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross, six hundred soldiers eligible for the Medal of Honor were Jewish or Hispanic.
Prejudice is not new in the United States. It will never completely disappear. But this nation has made great strides in reducing or eliminating prejudice. We’ve also made great strides in many other areas. No, the nation’s not perfect. It never will be unless human nature undergoes some profound—and unlikely—changes.
But a nation can be judged by its progress and how it continually raises the bar for freedom and decency. When President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to three living survivors—two Latinos and an African American—he demonstrated that we as a nation should and can adhere to the principles we say we cherish.
A follow-up: Michael Libman said of Lenny Kravitz, “I never thought Lenny was that type of fellow. He was a very, very mild guy and a very happy guy, and not very aggressive. But they found out he could be if he had to.” The same was true of my friend (First Lieutenant) Howie Schnabolk, who flew a medevac helicopter in Vietnam. While taking wounded soldiers off the battlefield on August 3, 1967, Howie was shot down and killed.
Our greatest heroes often demonstrate that courage comes from quiet determination, not bluster. That, too, is a good lesson for all of us to study going forward.
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