WASHINGTON — In 1969, Army Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris waded through a blistering firefight in Vietnam to rescue a fallen comrade and keep crucial information out of the enemy's hands. He was injured three times during the fight, but after recovering, went on with his military career. Forty-four years later, in 2014, the initial accolades Morris received for his actions were upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Morris was born Jan. 7, 1942, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, a rural community east of Oklahoma City. His father, John, was a handyman who found work when he could, while his mother was a homemaker. Morris said when he was young, he enjoyed fishing, hunting and hanging out with his three brothers and four sisters.
Unfortunately, he grew up during an era of recessions, so there were few career opportunities in his area. But there was the military — something in which most of the men in his family had served, including his two older brothers and an uncle who was a member of the all-Black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion during World War II. Morris said he admired those men and their uniforms and that serving was something he considered from a young age.
There weren't many Black men in the Oklahoma Army National Guard in the late 1950s, but the service was recruiting, so in 1959, Morris signed up. After about a year, he requested to join the active-duty Army. He attended artillery and airborne training before deciding he wanted to join the newly created Special Forces. He started that training in 1961, and by September 1963, was a fully qualified Green Beret.
"I was 5 foot 4 inches, 117 pounds," Morris said during a 2015 Library of Congress Veterans History Project interview. "But I was a strong little fella."
Morris said that at some point, he was reassigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and sent to the Dominican Republic for about a year and a half as the U.S. intervened in that country's civil war. But by 1967, he'd returned to the Green Berets as part of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
While he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Morris met Mary Nesbitt, whom he married three months later. The pair went on to have two sons and a daughter before he volunteered to go to Vietnam in February 1969.
Into the Jungle
Morris said he saw combat pretty quickly after his arrival, which prepared him for the hard test he would go through in September 1969. Then a staff sergeant, Morris was the commander of a five-man Special Forces team within IV Mobile Strike Force that supported South Vietnamese troops and other local Soldiers.
On Sept. 17, 1969, his unit was on a search-and-destroy mission in southern Vietnam's Mekong Delta, near the Cambodian border. Morris said his company was behind two others who had gone through a village that seemed mostly empty. But shortly afterward, the two companies at the front were ambushed.
Several men were injured very quickly and had to be evacuated by helicopter, Morris said. Soon after, he learned by radio that another team commander, Master Sgt. Ronald Hagen, had been killed near an enemy bunker.
Morris immediately reorganized his men to defend their position, then took two men with him to go forward and bring back the fallen commander. Morris said when they reached Hagen, enemy gunfire stopped just long enough for him to pray over the body. Quickly, though, hostile fire reignited, wounding the two men with him.
Morris helped them back to safety, then recruited two more men to continue the mission. With only their team's gunfire to protect them, the trio rushed forward through heavy enemy machine gun fire. As they neared the bunker closest to Hagen, Morris took out the enemy soldiers inside, grabbed Hagen, then began the arduous journey back to friendly lines.
Morris said he made it back unscathed, but he realized that a map case of Hagen's had fallen to the ground along the way. It included vital, classified information that couldn't get into the hands of the enemy, so he and another Soldier had to go back for it.
Having collected as many grenades as he could, Morris launched them at every bunker he could find along the route, taking out four. He and his comrade were able to retrieve the map case and run, but on the way back, Morris was shot at close range.
"I could see bubbles coming out of my chest," he remembered.
Morris said he patched himself up behind a palm tree, then threw his last grenade toward nearby enemy soldiers. That's when he got shot in his right arm, which caused him to drop his weapon out of range of where he could easily pick it back up.
Morris needed help badly, so he said he radioed the Air Force to ask for close-air support. They didn't have a defined target, though, so they were concerned they might hit him if they dropped artillery. Instead, Morris contacted Navy Seabees, who had a helicopter in the area. He got them to drop smaller explosives on top of the enemy, which gave him a chance to reach his weapon again and start firing, despite getting hit a third time in the finger.
"I fired every magazine I had," Morris said. "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."
The chaos gave Morris just enough time to get out of the path of direct fire and back to friendly lines. He was eventually medevac'd to a field hospital, then Saigon, then Japan for treatment before being flown back home to Fort Bragg. He spent about three months in hospitals to recover from his wounds.
Soon after, he learned that he'd earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. The military's second highest award for valor was presented to him by Lt. Gen. John T. Tolson in April 1970 during a ceremony at Fort Bragg, according to the Okmulgee Daily Times newspaper.
Within a few weeks, Morris volunteered to go back to Vietnam for a second tour of duty. This one lasted 13 months.
Morris left the Army around 1975 and stayed out for about three years, but his desire to serve pulled him back in by 1978. He eventually retired in May 1985 after serving for 23 years.
Morris said he initially struggled with returning to civilian life, as well as post-traumatic stress from what he'd seen in Vietnam. But he said he eventually sought help and, with the help of the veteran community and his family, was able to get his life back on track.
In the early 2000s, Congress mandated a review of service records of several service members from earlier wars to determine if any of those men had been passed over for the Medal of Honor due to discrimination of the time. The review determined that several men should have gotten the nation's highest honor for their valor.
So, in May 2013, Morris got a phone call he wasn't expecting. President Barack Obama was on the line to tell him that his Distinguished Service Cross was being upgraded.
"He also told me I had to keep it confidential. … Keep your lips zipped for 10 months? That's tough," he joked in his Veterans History Project interview.
Morris received the Medal of Honor on March 18, 2014, from Obama during a long-overdue White House ceremony. Nearly two-dozen other service members received the upgraded medal that day for their service in Vietnam, Korea and World War II.
Morris later said that the honor wasn't for him alone; it was for all the Soldiers who were with him that day, especially those who died heroes and never had the chance to be recognized.
"This is for them and for the whole nation," he said.
Since receiving the Medal of Honor, Morris has spent a lot of time talking to people in the military community, as well as school students. He said he wants to pass his knowledge on to the younger generation.
"These children today are our leaders of tomorrow. If they don't have the knowledge or the ability, we're slipping," Morris said in his Veterans History Project interview. "A nation that fails to recognize its heroes fails as a nation."
In 2015, a bronze statue of Morris was unveiled at Riverfront Park in Cocoa, Florida, where he and his wife currently reside.
This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which the DOD highlights one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.