Vet Shocked to Learn of Medal of Honor: 'I fell to my knees'

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 fell into enemy hands.

Image: Melvin Morris
Melvin Morris of Cocoa, Fla. More than four decades after Morris was commended for courageous actions while a staff sergeant during combat operations on Sept. 17, 1969, in South Vietnam, President Barack Obama will bestow on Morris, now 72, and 23 other veterans the Medal of Honor. U.S. Army via AP

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. They come after a decade-long congressionally mandated review of minorities who may have been passed over for the U.S. military's highest honor because of long-held prejudices.

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, the then-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 Cocoa, Fla., home.

"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 Associated Press

Image: Santiago J. Erevia, Jose Rodela, Melvin Morris
From left, Spec. 4 Santiago J. Erevia, Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodela and Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris. Seeking to correct potential acts of bias spanning three wars, President Barack Obama will award the Medal of Honor on March 18, 2014, to 24 Army veterans, including Erevia, Rodela and Morris, who are still alive and fought in the Vietnam War. AP