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Pentagon to address little-noticed measures tucked into defense bill

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Will Jewish American World War I heroes be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor?

Can the remains of American sailors killed in Tripoli in 1804 be brought home?

What will be contained in a Navy report to Congress on its policies for naming ships after controversy emerged over the naming of a vessel after labor leader Cesar Chavez?

Those are questions that will be addressed by the Pentagon as a result of little-noticed measures tucked into a defense bill that cleared Congress on Thursday.

The bill, which sets funding levels and policies for the Defense Department for the 2012 fiscal year, includes a directive, sought by the 82-year-old daughter of a World War I Jewish American veteran, for the secretaries of the Army and Navy to review the records of such veterans to determine whether any were denied the Medal of Honor because of discrimination.

“A wrong has been made right and only in America can something like this happen,” Elsie Shemin-Roth said.

Her father, Sgt. William Shemin, was a Jewish American who earned the Distinguished Service Cross in 1918 for saving three fellow soldiers’ lives in the face of heavy fire in France while also taking command of his platoon after his superiors were wounded or killed. He died in 1973.

The military records of Jewish American soldiers and sailors awarded the Distinguished Service Cross or Navy Cross will be reviewed to determine if they should receive the nation’s highest military honor.

“It is critically important that we provide brave Jewish Americans like Sgt. Shemin the opportunity to receive the recognition they may not have been afforded because of potential discrimination at the time,” said Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., who pushed for the measure on behalf of Shemin-Roth, a constituent.

The bill includes a measure sought by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that directs the Pentagon to report to Congress on policies and practices of naming Navy vessels.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., complained earlier this year that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ naming of a supply ship after Chavez appeared to be “more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy’s history and tradition.”

Hunter included in the bill a provision calling on the Navy to name the next available vessel after Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was awarded the Navy Cross for covering a grenade with his body and saving fellow Marines in a 2004 firefight in Iraq.

The bill also includes a measure to require the Pentagon to report on the feasibility of recovering the remains of 13 American sailors killed in Tripoli in 1804. The measure gained momentum with the political change in Libya. The sailors, fighting Barbary pirates, were killed in the explosion of the Intrepid in Tripoli Harbor.

“The United States has an obligation to leave no member of the armed services behind, especially after sacrificing so much for their country,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who pushed for the measure. “These heroes deserve better than to be left in decrepit mass graves on foreign soil. Bringing the remains of those brave commandos home and giving them a proper military funeral will finally bring a sense of closure to a tragic story that has lasted far too long.”

“After years and years of unexplained delays and blatant stonewalling, the U.S. Navy will now have to begin the process of bringing our nation’s greatest heroes home,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., said in a statement. His district includes Somers Point, named after Richard Somers, who led the Intrepid mission.


©2011 the Los Angeles Times

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