On the U.S. Army’s website are pages devoted to outlining the acts of heroism and courage committed by generations of soldiers. Staff Sgt. Manuel Mendoza’s listing concludes with an intimidating list of accolades accumulated during World War II and the Korean War, among them a Purple Heart and Italian Cross for Merit of War Unit Citation.
Missing from his many accolades was the highest award for valor a service member can receive. At least it was until Mendoza’s family received the recognition, the Medal of Honor, during a ceremony at the White House on March 18.
Mendoza was one of 24 service members living and dead to receive the Medal of Honor bestowed upon him for actions taken during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. His recognition stemmed from an engagement in Italy on Oct. 4, 1944 in which Mendoza single-handedly broke up a German counterattack. His actions garnered him the nickname the “Arizona Kid.”
His feat should have earned him a Medal of Honor years ago. Instead he received the second-highest honor, the Distinguished Service Cross. According to the Associated Press, Mendoza and the 23 other recipients were overlooked not because of their actions, but because of their race or creed — in this case Hispanic, African American and Jewish.
According to the AP, soldiers recognized by President Barack Obama during the March 18 ceremony had their cases for the Medal of Honor reviewed and the medals bestowed as part of a congressional mandate.
“Today we have the chance to set the record straight,” Obama said. “No nation is perfect, but here in America we confront our imperfections and face a sometimes painful past, including the truth that some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal.”
Mendoza lived with his family in Mesa until his death in 2001 at the age of 79. His widow, Alice, took the trip to Washington to receive the Medal of Honor and was joined by family members, including daughter Sylvia Nandin, who described the experience as emotional for everyone involved.
As part of the ceremony, Nandin said the family received a couple of minutes with Obama, something she said the family didn’t realize would occur until the day before the ceremony. She said Obama took care of her 90-year-old mother when they met and helped her overcome the wall of reporters and cameras in front of her during the ceremony.
“She came through it like a trooper,” Nandin said.
She also concluded the visit with a few friends, as Nandin said her mother endeared herself to everyone and even received a few pecks on the cheek from the president.
But Nandin said the ceremony with the president, as well as an ensuing event the following night at the Pentagon, were cathartic for the Mendoza family and the rest of the awardees, including three veterans still living. Even given the circumstances behind the event, Nandin said no one in the room harbored anger; rather, she said the tone was more celebratory than anything.
“It was long overdue, but it was a positive experience,” she said.
She still wishes her father was around to see the Medal of Honor he deserved. Then again, Nandin said he was an inherently humble man who rarely spoke about his service in either war. Once he completed his service, she said, he simply moved forward to civilian life as a manager at the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant.
Still, even without his presence, Nandin said receiving the medal has created many, many memories for them that will linger on for years to come.
“We feel like this is a journey our father took us all on,” she said.