After more than four decades, Vietnam War hero to receive Medal of Honor
February 25, 2014
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 25, 2014) -- Sept. 17, 1969, was a "terrible day, a hard day," said a Vietnam War veteran who will receive the Medal of Honor at the White House, March 18, for his actions on that day more than four decades ago.
Speaking from his home in Florida, retired Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris recently recalled the events of that day, when he was a Special Forces Soldier in the middle of the fiercest fighting he had ever seen.
Ambushed in the jungle of Vietnam, chaos followed for the then-staff sergeant. A radio call delivered the news that his team sergeant had been killed. Gunfire rained down from all directions.
In the day-long battle that ensued, Morris advanced his team to recover their fallen comrade, safely moved wounded men, and again put himself in the path of enemy fire.
Shot three times, he was wounded and bleeding. He felt no pain.
"I was in a few battles," he said. "But nothing compares to that. Nothing."
In 1970, he received the nation's second-highest honor for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross.
More than four decades later, he received a surprise call that brought him the news of the nation's highest military honor for valor, for his extraordinary actions and bravery that day.
AN IMPORTANT CALL
"It's an honor that I can't describe. I can't. Words won't do it," Morris said.
He and his wife of more than five decades, Mary Morris, never dreamed in their lifetimes who would be calling one Friday morning.
"It was the president of the United States," Morris said. "I almost passed out."
He had been told by the Pentagon two days prior to expect a call from a high-level official. He was not told who would be calling or why. But now, Morris was on the phone with President Barack Obama.
"He told me that he regrets that it took so long, but that I was going to be awarded the Medal of Honor. I couldn't believe that, and I don't believe she (Mary) could believe it either," Morris said.
The honor, Morris said, is not for him alone; it is for the Soldiers who were with him that day and those who bravely served, the men who died heroes who will never be recognized. Every Soldier is a hero, he said.
"This is for them and for the whole nation," he said.
He said he was a Soldier just carrying out his duty that day, doing what any Soldier would have done in the same situation.
"I'm proud of every Soldier," he said. "I'm just one of the people who did have witnesses."
Now that he is being honored so many years after that day, he said he hopes that everyone in the jungle that day "will be recognized now for their efforts."
The Medal of Honor is beyond anything he ever fathomed. "It's an honor you never expect," he said. "I'm overwhelmed. I still can't comprehend it."
THE YOUNGER YEARS
"There's no future, there's nothing for us," Morris and his brother had said about their boyhood home in Okmulgee, Okla., a rural community east of Oklahoma City.
The fourth of eight children in an African-American family that was evenly split between boys and girls, Morris has fond memories of his childhood and the small town, despite the lack of opportunities.
"We learned to survive; there were some tough times. There was no money coming in. But we were a happy family," he said.
His youth was filled with sports, hunting, fishing and quality time with his siblings, parents and grandparents. Morris, who went to a Baptist church later in life, attended three years of Catholic School as a boy before going to public school.
At a young age, the military was already in his blood. Most of the men in his family -- including two of his brothers and an uncle -- served in the military, he said.
"The Army didn't offer you anything then, nothing, no school benefits, no nothing, but that didn't matter to me, I just wanted to be in that uniform, I wanted to be a Soldier, I wanted to do things, go places, that was it. No regrets," Morris said.
Morris shipped off to basic training in 1959 and entered Special Forces in 1961.
"When I went into the military, I didn't know what kind of money they made. I just wanted to be a Soldier and when I saw $61 a month, I thought that was all the money in the world," he said with a laugh. "I've never seen that kind of money."
A FAMILY WORRIED
One night, while music played at the USO and young people came to socialize and dance, Morris, now a Soldier stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., met a young woman named Mary Nesbitt, from Fayetteville, N.C.
Three months later, they were newlyweds, the start of a lifelong partnership that would see a full Army career, the good times and challenges, three children -- Melvin Jr., Jennifer and Maurice -- and the seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren who followed.
Mary remembers the worry of being married to a Soldier who was doing a tour in Vietnam and having small children at home -- never knowing what danger her husband faced each day.
"I had sleepless nights also because I didn't know whether he was going to make it back or not. I always went to bed thinking 'What am I going to hear?'" she said.
She focused on raising the children, who were 4, 5 and 7 at the time of his first deployment to Vietnam. She helped them with their homework, managed the home and did everything she could to stay busy, keeping everyone happy and her mind off the terrible "what ifs."
Waving goodbye and watching the plane leave, Mary recalled how the family sent Melvin off to war for that first deployment to Vietnam in early 1969.
"Being around Fort Bragg, you always heard the airplanes. Every time [the kids] heard a plane, [they would say] 'daddy, daddy.' They thought daddy was coming home," she said.
Seven months into that deployment, the Red Cross contacted her; her husband had been wounded. She didn't know what to expect. "I just prayed and prayed and prayed that he would come back to us," she said.
The mission began early in the morning, Morris said. He was with Detachment A-403, Company D, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
On a strike force on a mission north and east of Chi Lang, on the central coast of Vietnam, Morris and his team were tracking the enemy and found a well-guarded supply point.
"After we got to the rice cache, that's when the ambush occurred," he said.
Bullets whizzed by. Morris and his team used machine guns and grenades. Enemy fire wounded some of the men. Things happened so fast, he said, yet time seemed to stand still.
"It was chaos during that time," Morris said.
Morris credited his actions that day to adrenaline, years of specialized training, and upholding the values he had sworn to defend.
He and his team "laid down a barrage" of machine-gun fire, and he lobbed hand grenades, Morris said. "Everywhere I could put a grenade, I put a grenade."
"[There was] automatic weapons fire. I can't remember too many human voices," Morris said. "I remember looking at my watch once and the next time I looked at it, it was in the evening. This started in the morning."
Morris navigated himself and two Vietnamese men through enemy fire to recover the body of his fallen team sergeant, Master Sgt. Ronald Hagen. "He was a good man, a friendly man. He was fair with me," Morris said. "I miss him."
Despite shots being fired from seemingly everywhere, Morris paused to pray over the body.
"I didn't worry about the shooting," he said. "Somehow it seemed it just stopped for a second."
Then, he said, the fire intensified. And that is when the two men with him got wounded.
"I had to get them out, then I had to come back again and again," said Morris, who returned with other men to recover Hagen's body.
While transporting the body, a map containing special operating instructions fell out of Hagen's pocket, he said. Morris put himself back into the line of enemy fire to retrieve the sensitive document.
"It wasn't a pleasant day, I can't recall seeing anything," Morris said. "I just went into combat mode. I was operating on adrenaline and instinct, training, everything kicked in at the right time."
"I was untouched until that last trip," Morris said.
"When I went back, that's when they shot me, I was shot once and had to defend myself and got behind a tree. They were trying to shoot the tree, so I got wounded again. I got wounded three times during that period."
"I had to fight my way out," he continued. "I got out. My training was kicking in and I was recalling everything I had to do. Believe in your training. That's all I got to say. I was trained well."
Alone, with enemy fire coming from all directions, he knew he had to make his way to safety.
"I don't know how many magazines I used, how long I fought, until I finally decided I had to get out some kind of way, because I was by myself," he said.
Air support dropped explosives, "but that didn't do any good," as the fighting raged.
"I was able to take out one position, to allow me a chance to get out. I remember on my way out, I was taking fire everywhere. Everywhere," Morris said.
He made it out. Finally away from the danger, he was reunited with his unit. He had been shot in the chest, arm and through the finger. A helicopter evacuated him to a field hospital.
"I didn't feel any pain until after I was in the hospital and I realized what happened and I started to come around," he said. "Then the shock hit me about what had happened. That's when it really tears you up."
Morris was taken to a hospital in Saigon, then on to Japan, and finally to Fort Bragg, N.C.
He was hospitalized for about three months total.
Mary said she ran as fast as she could to greet him when he arrived back in the United States. "When I saw him, wow, it was a blessing," she said.
"I was home," he said.
But his time with his family was short. Again, he volunteered to return to battle, and in six months he returned to the country where so many Americans made the ultimate sacrifice.
"I didn't know what was going to happen to him. He survived the first time. The next time I didn't know what was going to happen. It was just hard, hard, hard, hard," Mary said.
She lived in a military community; families around her lost loved ones in Vietnam. It broke her heart, knowing wives would be without their husbands, children no longer with fathers.
"I always heard something about somebody's husband [being killed in action]. I knew the husbands. When you heard of one person, it put another heavy burden on your heart," she said.
With 23 years of distinguished service in the United States Army, the military life agreed with Morris and his family, providing them security and a safe, familiar community.
"I never regret not one day of being in the military. Not one. The bad days are good and the good days are good," he said.
As a paratrooper and jumpmaster, Morris remembered fondly his time in the skies, "I was as high as I could go, and that was great, to hang out of the door of that aircraft."
Morris left the Army for three years, but his devotion to duty and commitment to the nation were too strong and beckoned him back into the uniform.
"Call of duty, I just couldn't get away from it. Military was in my blood and I wanted to go back," Morris said. "I was 36 years old and started over as an E-4, which didn't bother me. I'm Army. That's it. I wanted to finish my career."
In addition to the two tours in Vietnam, his Army assignments also took him to Panama, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Fort Bragg, and his last posting, Fort Hood, Texas. He retired in May 1985.
Being in a military community, Mary and Melvin both say they were insulated from the virulent anti-Vietnam War protests and the racial tensions and discrimination against black Americans in the United States.
The military was an old, familiar friend with a supportive community. Leaving was bittersweet. "I was ready to retire, and I wasn't ready to retire," he said.
After he took off the uniform for the last time as an active-duty Soldier, the institution that was his life, the only life his children had known, was in the rearview mirror. Morris, the career Soldier, was out of his "comfort zone."
He found himself short-fused, irritable and not able to deal with people well. He didn't want to be around others; he withdrew into his own world. He replayed the events of Vietnam over and over in his head, always questioning if he could have done something different that day.
"I think I was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder all the way through the military after Vietnam, but I was in an environment that was conducive to me, and it helped me out," he said.
"After [retirement], I didn't have it, and it started to compound and I had one heck of a struggle," Morris said.
During his time in the military, Soldiers didn't talk about having problems; they had to "man up, or else," Morris said.
Times have certainly changed for the better, Morris said.
It was hard, he said, but he had to face the past to be able to move forward in the present. He said he went for counseling and was able to work through his problems and struggles with the support of Veterans Affairs and his family.
Morris said he hopes to reach out to other veterans and share his story, to show them that help is available and it does make a difference -- a life-changing difference.
HOME SWEET HOME
Morris and his wife settled into a comfortable, post-retirement life in a small Florida town.
In their three-bedroom home, decorated with photographs and mementos from their life together, they enjoy visits from friends, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A swing in the backyard beckons those wanting to relax. Fruit trees, flowers and vegetables grow nearby, and Lucky, their dog, a friendly white poodle they rescued from Oklahoma, greets visitors as the hot mid-day Florida sun beats down.
Morris proudly displays his military decorations in a shadowbox; framed certificates of his achievements from his years in the military hang nearby on the wall.
He spends time reading his Bible, fishing and boating with his faithful canine companion Lucky, spending quality time with friends and family, and sharing his days with Mary.
"It's slow," Melvin said with a laugh. "This is a laid-back town. Laid back. You can't get more laid back than this."
It's a quiet and peaceful life, both Melvin and Mary agree with a smile.
The U.S. Army will induct the Medal of Honor recipients into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes in a March 19th ceremony. Interested media should contact Army public affairs at 703-697-2163 or Tatjana Christian at Tatjana.email@example.com.
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