Hispanic veterans get overdue Medal of Honor recognition (w/ video)
March 17, 2014 at 11:01 p.m.
Updated March 17, 2014 at 10:18 p.m.
Michael Pena, 67, was 31/2 years old when his father died while engaged in combat in the Korean War.
His mom remarried, but he grew up knowing that his biological father was a war hero.
"I'm very proud and honored to be his son," Michael Pena said of his father, who was also named Mike Pena.
Pena, who grew up in Newgulf in Wharton County, is one of two men from the Crossroads being awarded the Medal of Honor on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. The two men are among 24 soldiers found deserving of the nation's highest honor for valor after a 12-year review of prejudice in the awards process against Hispanic and Jewish veterans.
"It's bittersweet," said Santiago Erevia, who grew up in Nordheim and will also receive the Medal of Honor Tuesday.
Erevia, 68, who now lives in San Antonio, said he didn't feel as though he was treated with prejudice while he served in the Army.
"A lot of my buddies were white or black. We were treated the same," he said Saturday in San Antonio.
He did wonder why he didn't receive the Medal of Honor for his actions 45 years ago, but chalked it up to not being wounded during the event, he said.
The Army veterans were previously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions, the military's second-highest award. Of the 24 veterans receiving the medals, only three are still alive. Erevia is one of the three.
Erevia dropped out of high school in Nordheim as a sophomore. Knowing he would be drafted, he enlisted in the Army.
He received the Distinguished Service Cross, which will be upgraded to a Medal of Honor, for his actions on May 21, 1969, during the Vietnam War.
While on a search and clear operation near the city of Tam Ky in Quang Tin Province, Erevia and four wounded soldiers in his care came under intense gunfire, according to his award citation. Erevia collected ammunition from the wounded and single handedly took out four enemy bunkers while being shot at, according to the citation.
"Bravery had nothing to do with it," Erevia said of his actions. "I was put in a position. I could have been killed, but I got lucky."
Erevia's youngest son enlisted in the Army National Guard and served three tours in Iraq.
Erevia said he was not scared when his son went off to war, but he didn't let him leave without some advice.
"I told him, if anything happens, hug the ground; kiss it like it was a woman," Erevia said. "Believe me, I hugged the ground a lot, too, but sometimes you say, 'My friends are dying and I have to do something.'"
The Crossroads' other Medal of Honor recipient, Mike Pena, enlisted in the Army in 1940, when he was 16, his younger brother, Jesse Pena, said.
Pena joined the 1st Cavalry Division because he and a friend of his loved to ride horses, Jesse Pena, 80, of Wharton, said.
Less than a year later, Pearl Harbor was attacked and Pena was sent to the South Pacific. Pena was wounded twice before coming back home in 1945, Jesse said.
"When he got back, he was known as a WWII hero," Jesse said.
Pena married a woman from El Paso and together they had two boys before he was deployed to Korea.
Pena died on Sept. 4, 1950, near Waegwan, according to the citation of his Distinguished Service Cross, which will be upgraded to a Medal of Honor on Tuesday.
Obscured by mist, enemy forces approached his platoon in the night, according to the citation. The forces exchanged gunfire. Pena pulled back his men, regrouped and launched an attack, but it was soon evident that they were outnumbered and short on ammunition, according to the citation.
"Pena ordered his men to fall back, manning a machine-gun to cover their withdrawal. Single-handedly, he held back the enemy until the early hours of the following morning, when his position was overrun, and he was killed," according to the citation.
Pena's family had tried to get his Distinguished Service Cross elevated to a Medal of Honor prior to being notified of the upgrade, his son Michael said.
"But that never worked out," Michael Pena, who lives in Pennsylvania, said of the effort.
Last May, Michael Pena received a call from the Department of the Army verifying his identification.
"They then asked if I would be available for a phone call around noon on Thursday or Friday," he said.
Michael said, "yes." Thursday went by and he didn't hear anything, he said. But around 2 p.m. Friday, he received a call from a woman who identified herself as a member of the President's staff.
"She asked, 'Do you have a minute to talk to the President?' And I thought, 'Who would say no to that?'" Michael Pena said.
The President told him that his father would receive the Medal of Honor.
"I'm very, very proud. I'm just glad that his sacrifice has been recognized," Michael Pena said.
Growing up, he learned bits and pieces about his father from his mother's family, he said. Pena used to take his son to ride calvary horses.
"He would take me outside gardening, and I would carry his water can with him. He just seemed like a typically family member," Michael Pena said of his father.
In his letters home, Pena detailed his day-to-day routine, always ending with, "How are the kids? Love you and the boys." his son said.
"I like to think that my brother and myself were denied the family with my father so that several other kids could have a life with their fathers," his son said.