Revisiting the valorous actions of Black veterans

Revisiting the valorous actions of Black veterans

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin wants to ensure the valorous actions of Black servicemembers receive full consideration for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor.

In August 2021, Austin directed the Secretaries of the Military Departments to conduct a thorough review of the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and Air Force Cross Medals previously awarded to African American and Native American veterans for valorous actions.

The reviews of valor awards for World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars are to ensure equitable treatment for servicemembers who have historically faced discrimination based on their race. Austin noted the Departments of the Army and Navy already performed reviews for World War II veterans.

“It has come to my attention that African American and Native American Service Cross recipients, unlike their Asian American, Native American Pacific Islander, Jewish American and Hispanic American counterparts, did not receive the same opportunities to have their valorous actions reviewed for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor,” Austin wrote in a memo.

More than one million Black servicemembers answered the nation's call to service during WWII, despite the persistence of segregated units and discrimination. Civil rights leaders hoped military service would be a pathway to achieve the rights and respect they had been denied.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman organized a committee on civil rights. The committee declared that “the injustice of calling men to fight for freedom while subjecting them to humiliating discrimination within the fighting forces is at one apparent.”

Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, formally ending discrimination in the Armed Forces.

Despite being formally desegregated, institutionalized racism and discrimination have persisted. Racism robbed many Black servicemembers of awards for actions of valor in combat. Now, many of these veterans could see their heroic actions recognized by the nation they honorably served as reviews of the valorous actions of Service Cross recipients are looked at for potential upgrade to the Medal of Honor.

Historically, valor awards are only upgraded if new information emerges. Austin waived this requirement to clear the path for medal reviews.

“To facilitate any award upgrades resulting from these reviews, I waive the requirement in DoD Manual 1348.33, Volume 1, "Manual of Military Decorations and Awards: Medal of Honor," that a previously adjudicated nomination may only be reconsidered if new, substantive, and material information is provided to justify an upgrade,” Austin said.

The upgrade review and decisions must be complete within five years, he added.

As part of the legislative agenda for the 117th Congress, The American Legion drafted a point paper calling for a review of military awards for minority veterans.

“The gravity of these awards means their rarity must be jealously safeguarded; they can never be diluted in the name of making a political point,” stated The American Legion. “That is why The American Legion firmly believes that every hero from the First World War and all other subsequent conflicts whose deeds warrant the award receives it, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, their beliefs, or the color of their skin.

“Securing the deserved honors for past victims of discrimination is not just about righting the wrongs of history, it’s also telling those who are serving today that they will not be forgotten.”

The American Legion supports these efforts through Resolution No. 17: Support for Review of Minority Awards of Medal Of Honor WWI and Subsequent Wars/Conflicts.