TAMPA — Sgt. Ralph A. Morgan was one of 33 troops defending a featureless piece of earth in Vietnam that the U.S. Army called Hickory Hill. The men faced 1,200 attacking North Vietnamese Army troops.
It was June 4, 1971. Morgan helped save his platoon that day. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to allow his comrades to retreat to safety. He called in airstrikes.
Morgan earned a Silver Star, the military's third-highest decoration. On Tuesday, it was finally pinned to his chest.
Morgan, 62, was presented with the Silver Star Medal by Sen. Bill Nelson during a ceremony at Tampa International Airport's USO Tampa Bay center. Morgan was recommended for the medal not long after the battle. But Nelson said the paperwork was somehow lost.
After Morgan contacted Nelson's office for help, the military was recently able to document Morgan's battle actions.
"It's been difficult my whole life to talk about those events," said Morgan, who lives in the small community of Parrish just over the Hillsborough County line in Manatee. "I think talking about it now and going through this now is a way to clear my conscience and maybe get some ghosts out of the closet that have been haunting me for a long time."
The ceremony was attended by Morgan's three adult children and two of his grandchildren.
The biggest ghost, Morgan later said, was having to leave friends behind on that hill after he was ordered to evacuate by helicopter. One of those friends, Sgt. John Jones, 22, was killed.
"There's a code that you never leave a man behind," Morgan said. "I could have refused that order and stayed there."
Jones' remains would not be found until 2011 by the Pentagon's POW/Missing Personnel Office. He was found in the bunker where he died.
Jones was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in December. Morgan wanted to attend. But he said it would have been emotionally overwhelming.
Another man left behind was Sgt. Jon Cavaiani, who was senior to Morgan and ordered him to leave Hickory Hill. Cavaiani was wounded and presumed dead. But he spent 11 days evading the North Vietnamese after the hill was overrun before his capture.
Cavaiani spent 661 days as a prisoner of war.
In 1974, Cavaiani received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration, for his part in the Hickory battle.
After the war, Morgan said, "Jon was very quick to remind me that he ordered me off that hill and that what happened after that was his responsibility."
Eight U.S. special forces troops, including Morgan, and 25 allied Vietnamese commandos were guarding a classified radio relay station atop Hickory that intercepted enemy communications.
Morgan had been at the outpost for about a week when the North Vietnamese Army attacked with small-arms fire, rockets and mortars, quickly surrounding the platoon.
His Silver Star citation said Morgan, armed with just his M-16 rifle, moved to the east side of the hill where the attack was most intense, and laid down cover fire, allowing friendly troops to get back inside the outpost perimeter.
Morgan, a radio operator, organized a defense and called in airstrikes. He also helped destroy sensitive equipment for fear it would fall into enemy hands.
The citation said Morgan repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire "with disregard to his own personal safety."
Morgan said his decoration was more for the families of troops who served in Vietnam and never returned. Fighting tears, he said, "I wish I had the strength to mention their names."
William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 226-3432