Nightly News   |  March 18, 2014

A Medal of Honor Ceremony Years in the Making

One of the three living soldiers honored in Tuesday’s ceremony was ‘overwhelmed’ upon learning he would finally be recognized for his valor.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> president obama told the assembled honored guests at the white house this afternoon, this is going to take a while and it did. because today the president on behalf of a grateful nation presided over the largest single group of recipients of the medal of honor since world war ii . here are the names of the 24 recipients awarded today. in many cases they were denied the nation's highest military award because of their race or religion. and of the 24, from three separate wars, only three men survived. and they stood together today. sons and daughters accepted for the deceased heroes and for many the ceremony was overpowering, several were comforted by the president. our report tonight from our pentagon correspondent jim miklaszewski .

>> reporter: for 72-year-old vietnam veteran , melvin morris , it was 44 years and coming. when president obama called with the news, morris collapsed to his knees.

>> i was overwhelmed at that point. and he was saying, be cool, be cool, be cool.

>> reporter: today at a highly emotional white house ceremony, president obama presented a medal of honor to 24 service members from world war ii , korea, and vietnam. all passed over at the time because they were hispanic, jewish or african-american.

>> the ceremony is 70 years in the making. as one family member has said, this is long overdue.

>> reporter: only three includes melvin morris are living today. one by one for more than an hour, each citation was read.

>> knocking out the enemy mortar position and destroying both bunkers and killing their occupants.

>> reporter: the president presented the highest military honor to the families of those who dedicated their lives to their country. as one of the original army green berets , staff sergeant melvin morris volunteered twice for vietnam. a battle in 1969 was almost his last.

>> i went in and threw hand grenades everywhere.

>> reporter: under relentless enemy fire , morris was gravely wounded, shot three times while retrieving the body of his sergeant. that same year, specialist santiago ettevia was pinned down, the soldier next to him shot dead. surprisingly, morris doesn't believe he was the target of discrimination on or off the battlefield.

>> it didn't matter, we all bled the same blood.

>> reporter: the things morris cherishes most, his service and his green beret.

>> it's beat up, sewn up and survived. but i'll never wash it, because i always said, let the blood, sweat and tears stay in it.

>> reporter: jim miklaszewski , nbc news, the pentagon.