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One of the first Black Marines is seeking recognition decades after being wounded in World War II

<i>CNN</i><br/>Siblings Christopher Lee Newby
Siblings Christopher Lee Newby

By Isabel Yip, Jason Carroll and Linh Tran, CNN

(CNN) — Decades after Lee Vernon Newby Jr. was one of the first Black recruits to break the color barrier in the Marine Corps, he and his family are still fighting for recognition.

The 100-year-old and his four children want him to be honored with a Purple Heart for his service but so far, he’s been denied one despite his extensive injuries.

“I was over there serving the government, serving this country. They put me in harm’s way, but still they didn’t give me the acknowledgment,” Newby told CNN.

Newby, who now lives at a senior living facility outside of Detroit, was just a teenager when he fought in World War II. He says he felt fortunate to serve his country despite being one of the few Black people in the Marine Corps.

After being drafted, Newby was assigned to Montford Point, a segregated training facility in North Carolina.

Newby headed to the Solomon Islands for the Battle of Guadalcanal, as fighting took place between 1942 and 1943. During that time, Newby’s family says he suffered fourth-degree burns after gasoline exploded in a hole. The burns covered more than 60% of his body, his family said.

“All of a sudden, something hit me right in my chest. Just all of a sudden, it just burnt the clothes off of me,” he said. “When I hit the deck and got up, all the skin was just laying out.”

Ellena Dione Newby-Bennette, one of Newby’s daughters, said her father received medical treatment for several months and later was sent back into action. “He wasn’t 100% healed,” she said.

Newby received an honorable discharge in 1946 and returned home, where he struggled with racism and Jim Crow laws, his family said. He found work as a janitor and chauffeur, and eventually started a family.

“America is one of the greatest countries in the world, but I didn’t get a fair deal,” he said. Newby is still hoping it will change.

A family seeking a Purple Heart

Newby received a letter from President Joe Biden on his 100th birthday earlier this year, and he has been recognized by state and local officials. But last month, he received a letter from the Navy, telling him he is not eligible for a Purple Heart.

The rejection, Newby says, reinforced feelings that Black people have been “getting a short deal.”

The Purple Heart has specific criteria for when is awarded to US service members, and is limited to those who are wounded or killed in combat. It is described as one of the most respected military awards.

In the letter, shared with CNN, Navy officials said Newby is considered ineligible because he was not wounded “at the hands of the enemy.”

The letter states at the time, Newby was working with another service member who was attempting to kill rats by pouring gasoline from a cup down a hole next to a stump.

The unnamed service member threw the cup when it ignited and set Newby’s clothing on fire, the letter said.

Newby and his family said they are planning to appeal the decision. Newby’s daughters said their father doesn’t recall that rats were involved and “doesn’t understand where that story came from.”

The Pentagon further clarified the rules, noting there are two key conditions which both must be met for the Purple Heart to be awarded.

“First, the wound must have resulted from enemy action. Second, the wound must have been of such severity that it necessitated treatment, not merely examination, by a medical officer. If the wound does not meet both standards, the Purple Heart may not be awarded,” spokesperson Yvonne Carlock told CNN.

Newby’s children said he experienced PTSD symptoms and they grew up listening to stories of enemy planes flying overhead bombs being dropped, and friends dying due to their injuries.

“How much more of his heart did he have to give? More than half of his body was burned,” said Newby-Bennette.

Newby’s children hope their father and other Black Marines who did not live long enough to receive notoriety are honored for their service.

“He deserves to have his due,” Newby’s daughter Jannise Newby said.

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