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Quest For A Friend Helps Undo Decades Of Medal Of Honor Bias


Today's ceremony, awarding 24 Medals of Honor, can be traced back to the efforts of one man. President Obama gave him special recognition at the White House today.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Mitchel Libman, a friend of one of these soldiers and an Army vet himself set out on a mission. He and his wife, Marilyn, spent years writing letters and working with Congress and our military to get this done.

CORNISH: Mitchel Libman's friend was Private First Class Leonard Kravitz. If the name sounds familiar, yes, he's the uncle of the musician Lenny Kravitz. Private First Class Kravitz was killed in the Korean War, in a courageous stand against the enemy. Like the others we just heard about, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest award.

After the war, Mitchel Libman began looking into Kravitz's case and he found there were many other Jewish-American soldiers who perhaps should have been considered for the Medal of Honor. He suspected a pattern of discrimination against Jews.

Mitchel Libman is now 83 years old. I asked him to think back half a century to when he first started his investigation.

MITCHEL LIBMAN: It took me a while to realize what was happening or what I thought was happening. And I had to find out, you know, just what to do about it to find out if I was right or wrong.

CORNISH: And you take your case to members of Congress. What happened next?

LIBMAN: Well, I spoke with Congressman Robert Wexler, who is a friend of mine. And he was kind enough to write a bill called the Lenny Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act of 2001, which was a big help; give me the ability to see what I thought was happening and try and do whatever I could about it, to correct whatever the situation was.

I remember them asking me if I minded if they added the Hispanics to the bill. And my answer was that if they deserve the medal, I certainly want them there.

CORNISH: Now, Mitchel Libman, can you recount for us what happened to your friend, Private First Class Leonard Kravitz, in Korea. As we said, he originally had earned the Distinguished Service Cross.

LIBMAN: That's right. They were in a battle with the Chinese. And from what I understand, they were having a terrible time. They decided to try and retreat. And - let me put my wife. If I can put my wife on, she can tell you a little better.

MARILYN LIBMAN: Hi, my name is Marilyn Libman. And one of the reasons we think Lenny was such a hero, if he stayed behind and he was told to retreat but he wouldn't - he stayed at the rifle...

LIBMAN: Machine gun, machine gun.

LIBMAN: Machine gun, actually it was. And he knew that there was no way he could get out alive. And he saved, as a result, many people's lives. 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. And we felt, my husband did, that he deserved a Medal of Honor. Not that the Distinguished Service Cross is not an excellent award. But we felt, what else can you possibly do for your country?

LIBMAN: Lenny, 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.

CORNISH: You've been doing this work for decades. And was there any time that you wanted to give up?

LIBMAN: Never, I never would have given up. I couldn't think of anything else but that for the 50 years I worked on it.

CORNISH: Well, Mitchel Libman and Marilyn Libman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LIBMAN: Thank you.

LIBMAN: Our pleasure.

CORNISH: That's Mitchel and Marilyn Libman, remembering Private First Class Leonard Kravitz, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor today for his courageous actions in the Korean War. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.