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Alumnus worked with lawmakers to pass the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act

Mitchel Libman still cries when he talks about his friend Leonard Kravitz.

Libman (BA ’53) and Kravitz (the uncle and namesake of rock musician Lenny Kravitz) grew up together in Crown Heights, a largely Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Lenny was always there when you needed a friend,” says Libman, 78, who now lives in Hollywood, Fla. “He wasn’t what you’d call a ladies’ man [or] a great athlete. Lenny was the guy who was always picked last for games we played. But when I got to choose, I’d always pick him right at the start. We were very close.”

But near the end of high school, as Libman’s future gained clarity, Kravitz’s grew cloudy.

“He wasn’t going to college, didn’t have a job and had no idea what he wanted to do,” Libman says. “I know he wasn’t happy and his parents were very concerned.”

Kravitz eventually decided to join the Army to fight in the Korean War.

“He and his parents argued often about it for months, and they finally gave him permission,” Libman says.

It was a deadly decision. And one that would shape Libman’s future for the better part of a half-century.

On March 6, 1951, Kravitz and two platoons came under heavy attack from Chinese troops. A U.S. machine-gunner was wounded, and Kravitz took over.

Kravitz and the men successfully fought off two early assaults, but then a larger group with automatic weapons and grenades rushed forward. The sergeant ordered a retreat. But Kravitz refused to leave the machine gun and yelled that he would cover his fellow troops, nearly 40 by Libman’s estimate. According to eyewitness reports, Kravitz said, “Get the hell out while you still can.”

Troops testified they heard Kravitz’s weapon firing after they reached safety. Then a barrage of hand grenades exploded. Then silence. The next morning they returned to the site. The bodies of Chinese soldiers were scattered all around Kravitz, who lay over his machine gun, dead.

It wasn’t until that summer, while Libman was home on break from the University of Denver, that his mother told him of Lenny’s death.

“Most of the year was a pretty big blur,” Libman says. “I went through a pretty rough period and kept everything to myself.”

Libman returned to DU. After graduating, he was drafted for service as a combat engineer and served in Korea in 1954 and 1955.

When he later learned that Kravitz had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest honor, “I was very happy he had been recognized,” Libman says. “At that time I didn’t really know what he had done, but I knew he was considered a hero.”

Still, Libman says, “I wanted to know what could possibly have put Lenny into the situation to make the decision to give up his life so all the others could get out of there alive.”

Libman’s search for details took on new meaning in the mid-1980s, when he learned Kravitz had been nominated for the Medal of Honor — the military’s highest award — but that the Pentagon had downgraded it to the Distinguished Service Cross.

“I had to know why that happened,” he says. “I’ve read the criteria for the Medal of Honor many times, and Lenny’s actions fit it perfectly.”

Adding fuel to his effort was a comment from Jerry Murray, who had served with Kravitz.

“He told me, ‘They don’t give the Medal of Honor to Jews.’ Up until then I was trying to get information. But that spurred me on even more. It wasn’t the first time I had heard it, but based on my personal experience with Lenny’s medal, I’d say it was very accurate.”

Libman’s quest took him to the pinnacle of U.S. military power. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush examined his request that they award Kravitz the medal. At one point, an assistant at the Pentagon told Libman the paperwork was on President Bush’s desk waiting to be signed. But it turned out she was mistaken.

“Both Clinton and Bush did what they were supposed to do, but officials at the Pentagon have turned down the request,” Libman says. “They only say that they believe the Distinguished Service Cross is the proper medal and nothing else.”

They did tell him they wouldn’t review the case again unless he could produce more proof.

Libman persisted and began working with Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who eventually introduced the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act of 2001. It mandates that all cases in which Jewish veterans were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross be reviewed to determine if the Medal of Honor should have been given.

Wexler says he believes it’s “unconscionable” that Jewish-Americans were “systematically denied medals they earned … due to prejudice and anti-Semitism in the Pentagon.”

Pam Elbe, an archivist at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C., says of the half-million Jews who served in World War II, only three received the Medal of Honor.

“I believe there was some discrimination going on there,” says Elbe, noting that the number of Jews who served in Korea isn’t known.

Lt. Col. Nate Banks of the Army public affairs office in Washington, D.C., says the list of soldiers being considered for the Medal of Honor is not public. “The Medal of Honor is awarded to individuals based on merit, and it’s not based on race or religion,” he says.

So far, just one Jewish veteran has received the Medal of Honor because of the Kravitz act — Tibor Rubin, who has become friends with Libman and who also believes Kravitz deserves the medal.

“I do think he should get it, but I also believe Mitch deserves the Medal of Honor for all he’s done,” Rubin says. “Mitch is a wonderful man, and he’s been fighting for his friend for a very long time.”

Libman believes Kravitz eventually will get the medal. But for now the request is still in limbo, somewhere in an office in Washington, D.C. Libman says a woman in the  Pentagon called him in early 2009 and said Kravitz remains on the list to be considered for the Medal of Honor. He’s also spoken with an assistant to Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff.

“I still wait for the mailman every day,” Libman says. “I’ve never given up because Lenny was my friend. Because he earned it. And because Lenny never gave up. He stayed to finish what was so important to him behind that machine gun. This is the least I can do for him.

“I spend a lot of time trying to understand what it must have been like for him … behind that weapon,” Libman says. “It’s very upsetting. It haunts me. He was there, all alone. He never even tried to leave. The proof of that was they found him still at his position, lying over his weapon, only six bullets left in his machine gun.

“Lenny knew me well enough to know I would go to any length to make sure the world knew what he did,” Libman adds. “His next thought, I’m sure, would be, ‘What the hell is taking you so long?'”

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