Sergeant To Receive Long-Overdue Medal Of Honor
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris has known many honors in his life.
SERGEANT FIRST CLASS MELVIN MORRIS: I have always been highly decorated. I had numerous valor awards and so I already knew how it felt to be a war hero.
MARTIN: But the 72-year-old veteran was still surprised to receive a phone call from the Pentagon official last spring.
MORRIS: He says a high government official wants to speak to you. And put him on the line, he say: This is President Obama.
MORRIS: Man, and I dropped down to my knees.
MARTIN: Did you really?
MORRIS: Yeah. And he said be cool, be cool, be cool.
MORRIS: He said I want to apologize to you for not receiving the Medal of Honor 44 years ago. But you're going to receive it now. What you need to do, just keep it confidential until it gets time.
MARTIN: That must've been a hard secret to keep.
MORRIS: I didn't think it was going to take 10 months.
MORRIS: But I kept it under wraps pretty good.
MARTIN: On Tuesday, Morris will receive the Medal of Honor - the nation's highest military honor - for courageous actions on one day in Vietnam, September 17, 1969.
A congressionally-mandated review revealed that Morris and 23 other veterans should have been awarded the medal years ago. They were all passed over because of racial discrimination at the time. But Sergeant Morris didn't want to talk about race. He says it didn't play much of a role in his time in the military.
What he wanted to focus on was that day in Vietnam. It began like any other routine operation. He and members of his unit moved through an unusually quiet village. And Morris started to fell that something wasn't right.
MORRIS: Twenty, 30 minutes later, I got a call. The team sergeant had been killed. And the team captain had been wounded three or four times. So I just had me and my assistant so we had to make a decision real quick what to do. And I made the decision to try to get into the body.
So I put the guns online and we just opened up, so pressed the fire. And they returned fire pretty heavy. When the fire ceased, I went in with two volunteers and I turn him over and I said prayers for him. They started shooting heavy.
MARTIN: Both of those volunteers were wounded. Morris returned them to safety and came back with two more soldiers who successfully removed the team sergeant's body. But then Morris noticed that the sergeant's map case had fallen out. He didn't want it to fall into the wrong hands, so he and his interpreter went back into the line of fire.
MORRIS: When the enemy come out of virtually nowhere, shot me right in the chest, my interpreter, he just didn't shoot at that moment. So when I went down he got out of there. But I had told (unintelligible) don't come get me if I go down. We've already lost everybody except him. While I was in there, I continued to throw hand grenades and fight and I got cover and I had to check my chest. I bandaged it up as fast as I could. And during that time they're still trying to get me, so I backed up to a tree, they were trying to take it down.
The Navy come in with a small helicopter and I'm communicating with them and they gave me an opening to get out. On the way out, they were shooting hard at me. But miraculously, I wasn't hit again. Of course, they made a poncho stretcher and I was out of there.
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MARTIN: If you ask Sergeant Morris how he feels about his time in the war, he says he has no regrets.
MORRIS: I'm never angry about it. You know, war is war. And we do what we're told to do and we don't determine the outcome. I just feel sad for having known people that didn't return. Those are my real heroes.
MARTIN: I asked Sergeant Morris if he had picked out a place to keep the Medal of Honor when he gets it home. He said it won't stay in the garage with his others. For the time being, his Medal of Honor will go in the safe deposit box in the bank.
Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris, he spoke with us from his home in Port St. John, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.