Maryland Minorities to be Reconsidered for Medal of Honor

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Men were stampeding away from Confederate guns, but Sgt. Leopold Karpeles remained, rallying 20 men to persist through the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. Karpeles was an assistant to the Underground Railroad, and a Washington Hebrew Congregant, according to historian Allen Mikaelian in his book “Medal of Honor.” Karpeles became the first Jew to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

In an effort to recognize more minority veterans like Karpeles, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) worked to include the World War I Valor Medals Review Act (HR 2249) in the annual defense budget (National Defense Authorization Act). The Valor Medals Review Act would reconsider African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, Native American, and Jewish American WWI veterans for Medals of Honor for their actions between April 1917 and Nov. 1918. This was brought to the attention of Van Hollen by the Valor Medals Review Task Force, and by the case of William Butler, an African American WWI veteran, according to Van Hollen’s press secretary Francesca Amodeo. A petition was raised in 2015 to award Butler the Medal of Honor for his efforts to distract German soldiers as they attempted to capture Americans. He was so tenacious that the Germans recorded Butler as numerous persons, according to Park University President and historian Greg Gunderson.


Retired Col. Erwin Burtnick, commander dept. of Jewish War Veterans Maryland, believes that qualifications will be difficult to prove. Some veterans, for example, did not put their actual religion on the military documents, he said.

Burtnick is responsible for the recognition of William Shemin, the 17th Jewish Medal of Honor recipient. Shemin was a 19-year-old WWI seargant who crossed 150 yards in broad daylight under fire to rescue someone, and then a second, and third person. He then led the platoon to safety. It took five challenging years for Burtnick to win Shemin the Medal of Honor.

“In the case of Shemin, his family were pack rats. They kept everything available,” said Burtnick, but Burtnick still ran into difficulties.

The review would consider veterans who received the Croix de Guerre, a French medal. It will also take into account whether the veteran was recommended to receive the Medal of Honor, or if they received the service cross.

“There are many Jewish veterans who shy away from the spotlight, and we should make sure their bravery is recognized and that they are thanked,” said Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum, director of Jewish Uniformed Service Association MD (JUSA).

Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum and Col. Erwin Burtnick at this years Veteran's Day Kaddish Service at Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery. (Tenenbaum)
Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum and Col. Erwin Burtnick at this years Veteran’s Day Kaddish Service at Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery. (Tenenbaum)

— Carolyn Conte

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