GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas -- Leo Parros so badly wanted to be a Marine that he forged his baptismal certificate and made himself 18.
"It was a childhood aspiration," Parros said. "I must have gotten the idea from literature. If you wanted to be a professional soldier, which I did, you wanted to be a Marine."
It's unfortunate that in 1944 the Marines didn't want Parros nearly as much as he wanted them.
Parros is black, and that made all the difference at the time.
In the last year, though, the Marine Corps and Congress have tried to correct the mistakes of the past by honoring men like Parros, known as "Montford Point Marines," after the site where African-Americans went through boot camp between 1942 and 1949.
On August 28, the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 14th Marines in Grand Prairie presented Parros, 86, a Congressional Gold Medal awarded by Congress this year.
The Congressional Gold Medal, first awarded to Revolutionary War heroes, is the highest award that Congress can bestow for "distinguished achievements and contributions." In recent years, the Tuskegee Airmen, Women Airforce Service Pilots and American Indian "code talkers" have all received the medals for their unsung contributions during World War II.
"Want to talk about moral and physical courage?" asked Lt. Col. Jonathan Dunne, an officer in the battalion. "I can't think of a better example" than Parros.
Nearly 20,000 African-American men graduated from boot camp at Montford Point, N.C., before President Harry Truman desegregated the military in 1948.
The men who joined during World War II, prohibited from serving in front-line combat units, were mostly in ammunition and supply companies. More than 13,000 served in the Pacific Theater, some of them on Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Parros spent most of the war in Hawaii but also served in the occupation forces in Japan beginning in September 1945.
A native of New York City and the child of Caribbean immigrants, Parros joined the Marines when he was 17, having altered his baptismal certificate to add a year to his age. His parents, he said, weren't even mad.
"They were liberal parents," he said. "They thought that if it was something I wanted to do, it was OK with them."
Because it became painfully obvious that he would never advance in the Marines, he abandoned his plan for a military career and left after about three years.
Dunne, in speaking to the current Marines at the ceremony, tried to impress upon them how different the service was then. He described it as "an ugly time" and not just "segregated but inferior" in equipment, living conditions, pay and treatment. He said Parros could not even go to nearby Camp Lejeune by himself.
"He needed to be escorted by a white Marine," he said.
Parros, who settled in Garland after his retirement, used the GI Bill to go to dental technology school in New York. In the mid-1960s, he started a dental laboratory in Los Angeles and operated it until he retired.
Now he spends his days writing poetry and sailing Lake Ray Hubbard.
Four of his five children attended the ceremony, all of them grateful that they could see him honored. Only a few hundred of the Montford Point Marines are still alive.
It was a little embarrassing for Parros -- but necessary -- he said.
"I would have liked it to have been a little more modest," he said. "But I don't feel like I'm receiving it for myself. I feel like I'm standing up for all the men who never received this honor."