MIAMI — Melvin Morris was commanding a strike force on a mission near Chi Lang, South Vietnam, when his special forces group came under attack and a fellow commander was killed near an enemy bunker.
Despite massive enemy fire directed at him and his men, hitting him three times, the 72-year-old Morris told the Associated Press on Friday that he was able to get to his fallen comrade and recover the body. He also retrieved a map that included strategic information that would have been trouble if it had fallen into enemy hands.
More than four decades later, as a way to try to correct potential acts of bias spanning three wars, President Barack Obama will bestow the Medal of Honor on the Florida man and 23 other veterans, the White House announced Friday. They come after a decade-long congressionally mandated review of veterans who may have been passed over for the U.S. military's highest commendation for combat valor because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.
Morris became one of the first soldiers to don a green beret in 1961 and volunteered twice for deployments to Vietnam during the war. After his Sept. 17, 1969, ordeal, Staff Sgt. Morris received a Distinguished Service Cross in 1970. He said he never realized that being black might have kept the higher honor from him.
"I never really did worry about decorations," Morris said.
He got a huge surprise when the Army contacted him in May and arranged for Obama to call him at his home in Cocoa.
"I fell to my knees, I was shocked," Morris said. "President Obama said he was sorry this didn't happen before. He said this should have been done 44 years ago."
The unusual mass ceremony, scheduled for March 18 at the White House, will honor veterans, most of Hispanic or Jewish heritage, who had been recognized with the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military award.
Morris is one of only three of the recipients still living. The others are Spc. 4 Santiago J. Erevia of San Antonio, Texas, cited for courage during a search and clear mission near Tam Ky, South Vietnam, on May 21, 1969; and Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodela of San Antonio, Texas, cited for courage during combat operations in Phuoc Long province, South Vietnam, on Sept. 1, 1969.
Among those posthumously honored is Spc. 4 Ardie R. Copas of Fort Pierce. He was killed during combat operations near Ph Romeas Hek, Cambodia, on May 12, 1970.
The military conducted the review under a directive from Congress in the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act. The law required that the record of each Jewish American and Hispanic American veteran who received the second-highest medal for gallantry during or after World War II — the Distinguished Service Cross for the Army, the Air Force Cross for that branch, and the Navy Cross for the Navy and Marine Corps — be reviewed for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor.
The Pentagon said the Army reviewed the cases of the 6,505 recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars and found an eligible pool of 600 soldiers who may have been Jewish or Hispanic. The smaller branches found 275 among them.
Two dozen veterans — all from the Army — emerged as worthy of an upgrade to the Medal of Honor. Of the 24, eight fought in the Vietnam War, nine in the Korean War and seven in World War II.
Morris was the only African-American veteran identified as part of the review. The initial congressional order did not include black service members for reassessment, but it was later amended to allow others deserving an upgraded commendation — not just Hispanic or Jewish service members — to receive one.
"From the beginning of the encounter, until he was medically evacuated, Morris reacted to each situation with a professionalism, and single-minded determination possessed by few men," according to the information released by the Army about Morris, who grew up in a small town in Oklahoma.
He had to keep the medal a secret since Obama's call and said that he is happy to be honored, but that it's even more important to recognize his friends that never returned home.
"Those that aren't even here to receive their medals, those are my heroes," said Morris, who retired from the Army in 1986 as a sergeant first class. "They gave their whole life. They gave everything. They gave it all."
The review identified one deceased Jewish veteran. Five of the 24 identified themselves on military personnel forms as "Caucasian." Military officials said their ethnicity or religious affiliation is uncertain, but their battlefield actions were found to deserve the highest honor.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.