(WASHINGTON) — Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris was just 27 when his actions during the Vietnam War earned him the Medal of Honor, but it wasn’t until now, at age 72, that Morris will be properly acknowledged.
President Obama will recognize Morris on Tuesday, along with 23 other overdue Medal of Honor recipients who served during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, to which Morris said “better late than never.”
The presentation of 24 Medals of Honor — the largest such ceremony since World War II — is the culmination of a 12-year review by the Pentagon to uncover cases where the nation’s highest honor for combat valor was deserved but overlooked because of racial and ethnic discrimination. But Morris, an African-American who served as one of the first Green Berets, told ABC News that he didn’t believe he was discriminated against because of his race.
“I was with a bunch of professional men,” he said. “The teams were designed so that you get along together and you rely on each other, so it’s something that I never thought about.”
On a mid-September day in 1969, Morris and his team of Green Berets were on a routine mission near Chi Lang, Vietnam, when he and his comrades came under enemy fire.
“That day was just a little bit odd,” Morris recalled. “It was too quiet, not enough activity and so we moved through the village…and once we got to the wood line and then that’s when everything started happening.”
Morris, then a staff sergeant, got a call from his team captain telling him that he was badly wounded and that their team sergeant had been killed. Morris and his team advanced to the position of his wounded team captain, who had already been evacuated by medical personnel by the time they arrived. Then, Morris got another call that another senior leader had been killed and he was suddenly in command.
Morris and his fellow troops were coming under fire from the enemy, but he was determined not to leave the body of the fallen team sergeant behind.
“I just made the decision I’ll go in anyhow,” he recounted. “And I got to my team sergeant’s body because, as a rule, we leave no soldier behind.”
By the time Morris got to his team sergeant’s body, the two men who had braved enemy fire with him had themselves been badly wounded. Morris took them back to safety before he once again set off with two additional squadmates braving intense fire to recover the body of his team sergeant.
After successfully retrieving the body, Morris sustained three bullet wounds after he braved enemy fire yet again to bring back a map that contained sensitive U.S. military information. Morris said he never once considered not acting in the valorous fashion that he did.
“We don’t join the military to back out when it get tough; we got to do what we’ve got to do,” Morris said.
Morris, who said he never thought that his actions in Vietnam would earn him the Medal of Honor, was so surprised when he first got a call that “a high government official” wanted to speak with him that he initially thought “I’m in some kind of trouble or something.”
“And I got on the phone, he says, ‘This is President Obama. I’d like to apologize to you for not receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor 44 years ago,’ and I kind of went down a little bit,” Morris remembered from his phone conversation with the president. “He said ‘be cool, be cool, be cool,’ and it was like he could see what I was doing.”
Morris said he’s not sure what will be going through his mind as he accepts his belated medal from the president but that he hopes the military’s review of overlooked cases doesn’t end with this group of newly recognized recipients.
“I’m here now, and I’m receiving this Medal of Honor and get prepared for what comes after,” he said. “I think I worry more about that than I do receiving it because this is history, I’ll really be out front, and I’ve got to represent a lot of people.”
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