CAMBRIDGE — Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., announced Thursday, April 18, at the Octavine Saunders Empowerment Center on historic Pine Street, the World War I Valor Medals Review Act, new bipartisan legislation that will ensure minority veterans who served during World War I get recognition for their heroics.
The bill would require the Department of Defense to undertake a review of valor medals awarded to minority veterans during World War I to determine whether any should receive the Medal of Honor. This review would be conducted in consultation with the World War I Centennial Commission’s Valor Medals Review Task Force.
Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are original cosponsors of the Senate bill, and Congressman French Hill, R-Ark., has introduced the House companion legislation, a news release states.
Service members of all races, religions and backgrounds fought in World War I, but the Medal of Honor was denied to minority veterans until the 1990s.
Congress has authorized more recent reviews for minority service members from World War II to the present, but the only review undertaken for World War I took place in 1919 — and no minority veterans received the Medal of Honor as a result of that review.
Maj. Gen. Christopher Leins, a retired U.S. Army serviceman and co-chairman of the Valor Medals Review Task Force’s External Affairs Subcommittee, said prejudice played a role in the lack of awards given to service men in 1919.
“The World War I era was an age of significant discrimination in America,” Leins said. “In the U.S. the idea that African-American soldiers would return from France with ‘new and radical ideals’ led to a period of heightened anxiety ... 76 lynchings occurred, among them, 10 African-American veterans still in uniform.”
Van Hollen said with 2019 being the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I, the state still has a lot to learn about its personal sacrifice through the war.
One individual, William Butler, an African-American veteran from Salisbury, was honored with France’s equivalent to the Medal of Honor, the Croix de Guerre with Palm, Van Hollen said.
“His valor was recognized with the Croix de Guerre with Palm, the Distinguished Service Cross and a recommendation for the Medal of Honor — but he never received that medal before his death,” Van Hollen said. “His story is the exact kind of case the Valor Medal Task Force should review. This legislation will ensure he and countless others have the opportunity to be honored.”
Historian Linda Duyer said she had found history of Butler’s heroics, detailing how he had defended an American trench from an onslaught of German soldiers, singlehandedly, with a hard-to-operate weapon. She said through this work and research, it was appropriate his family was recognized and honored in the centennial anniversary of World War I.
“When the 359th returned to the United States, they were honored in New York, that’s where they got their medals ... He was given the State of Service cross and the sharpshooter’s medal from the U.S.,” Duyer said.
Secretary of Veteran Affairs George Owings, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said it was important to remember service men and women did not win the medals displayed on their chests — they are earned.
“You don’t win medals, by the way, you earn them. No one I know got back from where we were from, Vietnam, and said, ‘Look what I won,’” Owings said. “You earned those ribbons and medals that you are proudly displaying on your chest today ... He didn’t set out to win a Medal of Honor, and how long it’s been forgotten now.”
Dr. Timothy Westcott, director of the George S. Robb Centre, said the connection between Missouri and Maryland is a nomination form for the Medal of Honor for a serviceman from his state and Butler. He said researchers had found a small paper in the National Archives with both’s men’s names.
Blunt said veterans who exhibited acts of valor deserve recognition through the Medal of Honor, and he was grateful for the work being done to further the review process.
“We cannot erase the discrimination minority service members faced, but we can make sure their heroic deeds are acknowledged and honored,” Blunt said. “I’m grateful for the work the Valor Medals Review Task Force, in partnership with Park University, is doing to make sure those who were denied the Medal of Honor because of their race or religion finally receive the recognition they have earned.”