After Decades Without Recognition, The Ultimate Military Honor

Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris received the highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, from President Obama. Morris may have been passed over for the award because of his race and ethnicity.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today is Memorial Day, and while it is a day many of us will head to the pool or a cookout, it's always a time to honor the men and women in the armed services who have served their country, especially those who gave their lives doing it.

So we want to start the program by bring you the story of Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris. He nearly died while serving courageously in combat in Vietnam. Decades passed before he was fully acknowledged. Sergeant Morris is one of the nearly two dozen veterans who recently received the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor given to someone for an act of valor above and beyond the call of duty. President Obama honored 24 Army veterans with the award last March. All are service members who might have been overlooked or bypassed for the award in the past because of their race or ethnicity.

I spoke with Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris earlier this year, just before he was awarded that medal. And he started by telling me about how he found out about the honor.

SERGEANT FIRST CLASS MELVIN MORRIS: I received a call in May of last year from Colonel Davis, and he told me that a high-government official wants to speak to me, and would I be by the phone the next day at 12:30? And my thoughts was, oh, my God, what have I done? So the next day the phone rings, and I answered. It was Colonel Davis. And he said, the high-government official is waiting to speak to you, and I had no clue.

And the guy the phone said, this is President Obama, and I want to apologize to you for the oversight, and you're going to receive the Medal of Honor. And I almost fell on my knees, and he said, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Be cool. Be cool. Be cool, OK. And, you know, it wasn't much conversation. That was it. So I was in shock, I guess.

MARTIN: He could hear you over the phone about to buckle?

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: Yes. Yes, he could.

MARTIN: Well, fortunately, you didn't fall down.

MORRIS: No. Yeah, I regained myself. I recovered.

MARTIN: All right. We would've expected nothing less.

MORRIS: No.

MARTIN: Do you mind taking us back to the acts that brought you this recognition? This was in September of 1969 when you were commanding a strike force in Vietnam when your special forces group came under attack. Do you mind talking a little bit about it? And I do recognize that this is not, you know, cocktail party conversation that you just bandy about. But if you could, just tell us a little about about what you remember.

MORRIS: Yeah. We were on a routine operation. We were in an area, passed through the village and in the (unintelligible) line. And that's when the firefight started. And I called the radio, said my team sergeant was KIA. And my captain said he was wounded three times. And I started to move forward. And I found out that the senior (unintelligible), he was also wounded. Stepped on a mine I think. And then I had to go into action because there was only two people left. And that was me and my assistant. So I moved forward, and I knew I had to recover his body 'cause we don't leave no soldiers behind. Irregardless, it was a lot of weapons fire.

So I moved forward, and I organized my troops. And we laid down suppressive basic fire so we could get to the body. And I got to the body, and I gave him last rites. And soon as I finished, they opened fire on me. And I ran back out.

Then I decided to get two volunteers to go back in, and I went back in with them to recover his body. And they got wounded, so I took them out. And I got two more to go back in with me. And then we recovered a body, even though we had intense gunfire. And while we were taking his body out, the map case fell out of his pocket, and I had to go back again. So I decided to go by myself, but my interpreter volunteered to go with me. And when we got in, one of the enemy faced me, and my interpreter couldn't shoot. So he shot me in the chest. I went down. My interpreter got out. I'm left now by myself. So they were trying to take me out, and I decided I had to fight for my life. In the process, well, I got wounded again in my right arm. I'm already wounded in my right chest. And I continued to fight. And I got wounded in my left ring finger - I got shot in my left ring finger.

So I'm at dire straits at that time. So the Navy came over in a small helicopter, and they said they could've dropped explosives to help me out - to get out. And they did that, and it helped some, some. And I felt like the only way I could get out is I had to fight out. And I used all the ammunition I had to suppress this fire. And I run out, and I run out zigzag. And they were trying to get me, but I made it out. And I was able to catch my company because I told them not to come back and get me if I went down, just to move back to the rear. And I was just lucky enough that I could still catch them. And they made a stretcher, put me on the stretcher and called in a medevac. And, you know, they medevaced me out. And...

MARTIN: So you made it out, despite being shot three times, having retrieved the map - retrieved the map that had strategic information...

MORRIS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And recovering the body of your comrade. Do you have any way to describe what it is that allowed you to keep going?

MORRIS: Duty and mission. There's some unsung rules. You have to do what you have to do. I couldn't leave the body, and I knew I couldn't leave sensitive information. So even though it was a great risk to me, this is something I had to do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is an encore broadcast of my interview with the Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris. We spoke with him earlier this year just before he was honored by President Obama. You were previously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. But this award comes about because the Congress decided some years ago to ask for a review of awards - military awards to see if there are people who had been left out or who should have been seen in a kind of a different light.

And it turns out that there are some - I mean, lawmakers were specifically looking for people of Jewish descent and people of Hispanic background, and I think, you know, African-Americans were kind of subsequently added to that review. Forgive me, because I don't think this is kind of your thought process here, but I did want to ask if you ever felt or anyone in your family ever felt that you had been overlooked?

MORRIS: No because, you know, I was a Green Beret. And we didn't worry about stuff like that. You know, and I felt like when I was awarded the medal - I mean, the Distinguished Service Cross, you know, that's what it was. And I never really questioned whether I should get the Medal of Honor or not. I'd never considered it until now. (Laughing).

MARTIN: What about that now? Do you have any mixed feelings about it, or does it just feel like pure joy, pure appreciation?

MORRIS: It's my appreciation, and what I'm proud about is they are correcting the oversights. And I hope they continue. I mean, you know, they realize now that there's possibility of oversights and that they're taking care of it now. And I feel great about that.

MARTIN: You served in a time when people who wore the uniform were not always appreciated when they returned home. And I wondered what were your experiences when you came back to the states after your military service?

MORRIS: A lot of apprehension because we already knew the stories of what's happening at the airports and back home. And I think I only ran into one incident in Chicago O'Hare. I didn't feel good about it because I felt like we were doing what we had to do, and that's protect this country, our country. And it bothered me for a while because I couldn't really understand demonstrators calling me baby killers and stuff like that.

MARTIN: That must have been difficult.

MORRIS: It was. It was.

MARTIN: What was the rest of your life after the service?

MORRIS: After the service, you know, I tried - it was difficult, I'll be honest. And, you know, I had a hard time adjusting. And I just sought the right help to get me on the right track. And the greatest thing I ever did - and I encourage any soldier that has problems after combat - seek the help. I did and it saved my life.

MARTIN: I'm glad to hear that. Of the 24 honorees, you are one of the three who are still able to receive the award directly from the president. There are only three who are still now living. And I wondered - if you feel comfortable speaking on behalf of all of them - is there something that you would wish the rest of us to know about your service that perhaps we don't know?

MORRIS: One comment, I really think about the ones that gave their life. And going back to my team sergeant, he gave his life. And he gave the ultimate sacrifice. That's my real hero. And all the ones that gave their lives, they're not here to accept the decoration and honor. They gave it all, and I often dwell on that. And I'm glad I'm receiving this honor in honor of them.

MARTIN: Do you feel appreciated now?

MORRIS: I feel like a weight has been lifted. Yes, I do.

MARTIN: That was Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris.

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