Only three of the 24 recipients of the Medal of Honor are still alive, all veterans of Vietnam, the Washington Post reported. Many of them died on the battlefield decades ago.
Obama called the ceremony "truly historic."
"This ceremony reminds us of one of the enduring qualities that makes America great, that makes us exceptional," Obama said. "No nation is perfect. But here in America, we confront our imperfections and face a sometimes painful past, including the truth that some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal."
One of those honored was Leonard M. Kravitz, an assistant machine gunner killed in Korea in 1951, and uncle of the musician Lenny Kravitz. Mitchel Libman, a childhood friend who also served in Korea, was convinced Kravitz, who received the Distinguished Service Cross, was passed over for a Medal of Honor because he was Jewish and campaigned successfully for legislation to search for veterans who did not get the recognition they deserved because of prejudice.
"I came to the conclusion that they don't give Jews the Medal of Honor. And it was pretty accurate," Libman said. "However, things have changed for the better. And he got what he deserved. He got the Medal of Honor, and quite a few others got it, too. So it made my life worth something."
Miriam Theresa Adams, niece of Pvt. Joe Gandara, who was killed in Normandy three days after D-Day, said he was the son of Mexican immigrants.
"When they brought him home, he had one flag on his coffin," Adams said. "We are proud of that. He was proud of his heritage, but he was an American."