Sargeant First Class Melvin Morris was presented with the Medal of Honor Tuesday afternoon for the extraordinary valor he demonstrated one fateful day in Vietnam during which saving others could have cost him his own life. President Obama bestowed the honor on 24 mostly Jewish, Latino and African-American soldiers who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and who may have been wrongly denied the medal because of prejudice. Just three are still alive, and one is still missing, but each one's contribution was recognized at the award ceremony.
Sept. 17, 1969, began like most others — a routine day of search and destroy operations. Morris and the members of his Special Forces Group, Company D, moved out at about 8 a.m.
When they reached their destination, Morris, one of the nation's first Green Berets almost immediately sensed that something wasn't right.
"The village was virtually empty with just an elderly lady singing loudly," he said in an interview with BET.com. "I was uneasy because there should have been more activity and more people than one person singing loudly."
They advanced from the village to the woodland, where Morris reorganized the company into different postures. Soon after the chaos began.
First he received a call notifying him that his senior sergeant had been killed. That was followed by a call to say his team captain had been wounded several times and another that his senior intelligence officer had also been wounded. Morris immediately went to help them, but once he arrived they'd already been medically evacuated. The body of the sergeant who'd been killed, however, had not yet been recovered.
"We leave no soldier behind," said Morris, who went with a group of soldiers to find the fallen soldier. "I found [the body], turned it over and confirmed that it was [Master Sgt. Ronald Hagen] and said a little prayer. We attempted to move him out but the enemy started to fire back quite heavily. Some of the men with me were wounded, so I had to get them out."
While they were moving Hagen's body, a map case with special operating instructions fell out of Hagen's pocket, and Morris was forced to go back to retrieve it under heavy fire.
"I had a lot of hand grenades and threw them until I could get to the map case. My interpreter picked it up and the enemy shot me in the chest," Morris said.
The interpreter ran out and as he sought cover against a tree, shots continued in his direction, hitting him next in his upper right arm. He threw another hand grenade and his left ring finger was shot.
"At that moment I thought, well, I gotta pray," Morris said.
His prayers were answered. Air support dropped explosives from a helicopter as he fought his way out and ultimately rejoined his unit. Morris spent the next two-and-a-half months recuperating in a hospital. After a six-month stay at home, however, he returned to battle.
"My family didn't like it much," says Morris, who has no regrets about anything he experienced. "But I had unfinished work. I didn't complete my tour and felt like I needed to do that."
In 1970, Morris received the Distinguished Service Cross. And more than 40 years later comes the much-deserved Medal of Honor.
"It feels great," he said. "It's an honor that you never expect. I have the nation's second highest decoration; to be considered for the Medal of Honor is great."
According to Obama, when the White House called to inform the veterans and their families that they would be receiving the medal, they were all surprised and some were even suspicious and thought it was a prank. Morris, he said, wondered if he'd done something wrong. When he learned he was being honored, recalled the president, who called him personally, he could hear him nearly passing out through the phone.
"This ceremony reminds us of one of the enduring qualities that makes America great -- that makes us exceptional. 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," Obama said. "So with each generation we keep on striving to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality, and to recognize the dignity and patriotism of every person, no matter who they are, what they look like, or how they pray."
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(Photo: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)