The soldiers’ stories play out in Josh Weston’s subconscious like old movies.
They come to him in quiet moments: when he’s falling asleep, or when he’s driving to work at the Valor Medals Review Project before the world has woken up, the only sound the snoring of his service dog, Moscow.
There’s Cpl. Isaac Valley, a Black man who was severely wounded when, instead of taking cover, he jumped on a grenade in a trench of soldiers, saving dozens. And Pvt. Sing Lau Kee, an Asian American who, despite steady mustard gas attacks that paralyzed his commanders, refused evacuation and single-handedly kept a message relay center running, and troops moving, for 24 hours straight.
And Mjr. Julius Adler, a Jewish American from the Ochs family, publishers of the New York Times, who, while corralling German POWs, came upon a party of 150 enemy soldiers. Running toward them with his pistol raised and screaming for their surrender, he captured 50 more.
These soldiers moved in separate orbits, coming home, carrying their service on their shoulders like an invisible boulder. They were connected by America’s first forgotten war, but living in bell jars, using the experience as either fuel for a full life or disappearing into themselves, the consequences of what they saw rattling around in their minds like balls in a bingo cage.
But a century later, their stories collide with two questions:
Were the medals for their heroic acts of valor downgraded solely because of their race, ethnicity or religion, as was common in America’s 20th century military?
Can Weston, 32, employ the weight of historical forensics to muster enough proof that these men deserve to be awarded the Medal of Honor?
For nearly three years, Weston and his colleagues, Ashlyn Weber and Timothy Westcott, of Early, Iowa, have researched the actions of more than 200 World War I soldiers — African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jewish Americans and Native Americans — who may have been discriminated against.
While the military has conducted reviews of valor for World War II and all subsequent conflicts, their work marks the first — and, with funding for such endeavors increasingly scarce, likely the last — review of World War I servicemembers.
“This is the one and only shot that these servicemembers will ever have to get the attention that they deserve,” says Weston, the project’s senior military adviser and a Davenport native.
The team has until 2025 to complete its congressionally sponsored, privately funded analysis and submit its medal recommendations to the Department of Defense, which will make final determinations. That process could take years as nominations work their way through the ranks, and any person along the way could decide a particular soldier doesn’t meet the subjective qualifications of the Medal of Honor — that a recipient “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
“Our entire purpose is to gather up as much information objectively, almost like a court case,” Weston says, “where we provide the evidence to say, no, this person does deserve the Medal of Honor, and the Department of Defense, sorry, but you guys got it wrong.”
Due to American troops’ segregation, Black WWI units were placed under the French Army’s purview when they arrived in Europe. Even if Black units were allowed to retain their leadership, white American officers often filled out the layers between boots on the ground and a French general.
Many of those white officers weren’t shy about their racist beliefs. In their papers or memoirs, some described Black soldiers as failures and inferior fighters; one even wrote to a powerful senator that they were “dangerous to no one but themselves and women.”
Those beliefs were normalized in a 1925 Army War College report on the future use of Black service members, which called them “subservient,” “of inferior mentality” and “inherently weak in character.”
“These individuals were fighting for a country that didn't even want them,” Weston says. “That's the simplest way to put it. But they fought anyways.”
The racism of the time bleeds out in less obvious ways, too. The disability reports project members read that always seem to place Black soldiers just under what they would need to get full benefits. The boxes Weston requests at libraries or archives that always seem to come covered in a thick layer of dirt and dust — grime making tangible the truth that the files haven’t been looked at in years.
“You see firsthand the blatant racism, the blatant prejudice. It becomes an everyday thing,” Weston says. “This isn't off in some foreign, distant land. This is here. This is in our lives, and whether or not we like it, we have to accept it, and we have to do something about it.”
“Hate won’t stand,” he adds.
No Black man was awarded the Medal of Honor in the years after the Great War, a pattern that held for WWII until a similar review in the 1990s led to seven Black men being awarded the military’s highest honor.
Although two Black WWI veterans have now been posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor — Cpl. Freddie Stowers in 1991 and Pvt. Henry Johnson in 2015 — Westcott believes many more are worthy of the honor, which his team hopes to be part of bestowing.
“As a veteran it is my duty to make damn sure we do the best that we can do to see if they warrant any further and long, long overdue recognition by our nation,” he says.
We don’t leave men behind, Weston adds. And “valor never expires.”
At the beginning of their work, Westcott made a phone call to a surviving relative of a servicemember, one he still thinks about often. He told her what he was doing, what the purpose of the review was, and the line went silent. He worried whether she’d hung up, whether they’d been disconnected, but then a hoarse voice finally spoke.
“It's taken 100 years for this phone call.”
Read more about Weston and his efforts: This Black Iowan’s heroism saved hundreds of WWI soldiers. So why didn't he receive the Medal of Honor?
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. Her grandfather Harold Crowder served as a physician in the World War II era and her grandfather Chester Care was in military intelligence during the Korean War. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Valor medals: Team of researchers honoring heroic acts of WWI soldiers