On Tuesday, President Obama presented Medals of Honor, posthumously, to two soldiers from World War I , Private Henry Johnson, of Albany, New York, an African-American, and Sergeant William Shemin, of Bayonne, New Jersey, a Jewish man.
We are a nation — a people — who remember our heroes. We take seriously our responsibility to only send them when war is necessary. We strive to care for them and their families when they come home. We never forget their sacrifice. And we believe that it’s never too late to say thank you. That’s why we’re here this morning.
Today, America honors two of her sons who served in World War I, nearly a century ago. These two soldiers were roughly the same age, dropped into the battlefields of France at roughly the same time. They both risked their own lives to save the lives of others. They both left us decades ago, before we could give them the full recognition that they deserved.
Our country did not do a great job with the “caring for them and their families when they come home” part when it came to Private Henry Johnson:
Henry was one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor. But his own nation didn’t award him anything –- not even the Purple Heart, though he had been wounded 21 times. Nothing for his bravery, though he had saved a fellow solder at great risk to himself. His injuries left him crippled. He couldn’t find work. His marriage fell apart. And in his early 30s, he passed away.
Now, America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson. We can’t change what happened to too many soldiers like him, who went uncelebrated because our nation judged them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. But we can do our best to make it right. In 1996, President Clinton awarded Henry Johnson a Purple Heart. And today, 97 years after his extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness, I’m proud to award him the Medal of Honor.
Full transcript below.