by Sheila MacVicar, 3-18-2014
Melvin Morris, 72, lives like a typical retiree on Florida’s coast. He spends his days leisurely by the water of Port St. John, reading the Bible, fishing and working on his boat. Then, almost a year ago, the retired salesman got a call from an Army colonel at the Pentagon who said a high government official needed to speak with him. Morris was told to stand by his telephone at 12:30 p.m. the next day.
The official was Barack Obama. The president apologized to Morris, and told him that he was presenting him with a Congressional Medal of Honor, which he should have received 44 years ago.
“I dropped down on my knees,” Morris told America Tonight.
“I could hear it through the phone, he almost passed out,” Obama said Tuesday as he presented Morris the military’s highest award for combat valor. He was one of 24 veterans so honored, after a review showed that they had been passed over because of their race or religion. It is the largest group of Medal of Honor recipients since World War II. Morris is one of only three who are still alive. Ten never came home.
“Their courage almost defies imagination,” Obama said, before placing the medals around the veterans’ necks. “When you read the records of these individuals, it’s unimaginable the valor they displayed.”
‘I thought I was done’
Morris joined the Oklahoma National Guard in 1959 before enlisting in the Army. He joined the Special Forces, and was one of the first Green Berets. When the Vietnam War broke out, he volunteered for deployment as commander of a strike force.
“Our job was to find the enemy,” he said, “and you know, get some results.”
In 1969, Morris was on a mission with a platoon of South Vietnamese fighters in the Mekong Delta. A fierce firefight broke out, and Morris heard over the radio that a commander had fallen.
Morris made a decision: “We can’t leave nothing for the enemy. We’ll never leave another fallen comrade.”
According to his medal citation, Morris and two other men went to retrieve the body. As he was giving him his last rites, a hail of gunfire opened up, and the two other men were wounded. He helped evacuate his fellow soldiers, then turned around. Through withering fire, he charged a line of bunkers, destroyed four of them with grenades, drove the enemy fighters back, collected a fallen map case that held sensitive material and then carried the commander’s body out of harm’s way, all while taking bullets to arm, hand and chest.
For his actions that day, Staff Sgt. Morris was awarded a Purple Heart for his wounds, and the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest decoration, for his heroism.
Morris went back to Vietnam for a second combat tour. “I don’t know if I was fully healed or not when I went back,” he said. “I didn’t care.”
Fifteen years later, Morris, after 23 years of service, hung up his combat boots and retired to Florida with his wife, to whom he’s now been married 53 years. The war stayed with him, though.
“I can’t tell somebody I’m so tough that I didn’t suffer PTSD,” he said. “I would be lying.”
He thought his career was behind him, with his medals and memories put on a shelf for good.
“I thought I was done. That was it,” he said.
Reviewing the past
In 1993, Congress ordered a study to determine whether racism explained why no black soldier had received the Medal of Honor in World War II.
“It was a pretty persuasive document that said yes, in all likelihood, or without doubt, racial discrimination in the Army, in all of the services, ended up creating this imbalance,” Richard Kohn, a former Pentagon executive and one of the researchers, told America Tonight.
The study paved the way for other reviews of different groups of minority soldiers overlooked for the military’s highest honor because of politics or prejudice. In 2002, the National Defense Authorization Act ordered the Army to review all of the Jewish and Hispanic soldiers who had received the Distinguished Service Cross from World War II onward, to see if any had deserved the nation’s highest honor.
Over 12 years, researchers thumbed through some 6,500 cases, teaming up with veterans’ groups and museums to be as exhaustive as possible. On Tuesday, Obama noted that the effort was doubly challenging because some of the veterans changed their surnames to assimilate more easily.
They finally selected 19 Jewish and Hispanic soldiers, and five of other backgrounds, including African-Americans, like Morris.
“No nation is perfect. But here in America we confront our imperfections,” Obama declared at the start of the ceremony. “Some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal.”
He put it another way: “Today we have the chance to set the record straight.”
Morris said he never had any issues as a soldier because of his skin color, and never thought he’d been unjustly denied the Medal of Honor.
“I never thought about it,” he said. “I had the nation’s second-highest decoration for 44 years.”