MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The Medal of Honor is the highest military honor given to someone for an act of valor above and beyond the call of duty. President Obama is honoring 24 Army veterans with the award next month.
All are individuals who might have been overlooked or bypassed for the award in the past because of their race or ethnicity. One of the recipients is Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris. He served in the Army for 25 years, including two deployments to Vietnam. And he's with us now from his home in Port St. John, Florida. Sergeant Morris, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you so much for your service.
SERGEANT FIRST CLASS MELVIN MORRIS: Thank you.
MARTIN: How did you first learn that you would receive the Medal of Honor? Do you mind taking us back to that moment?
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. And that was it. So I was in shock, I guess.
MARTIN: He could hear you over the phone about to buckle?
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. 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: We were on a routine operation, and that's when the firefight started. And my team sergeant was killed almost immediately. Then I had to go into action because there was only two people left. And I knew I had to recover his body 'cause we don't leave no soldier behind. Irregardless, it was a lot of weapons fired. 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, 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. I continued to fight. I got shot in my left ring finger.
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. 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 rear. And they made a stretcher, put me on the stretcher and called in a medevac. And...
MARTIN: So you made it out, despite being shot three times, having retrieved the map that had strategic information...
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, we're speaking with Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris. He recently learned he will be awarded the Medal of Honor for an act of valor that occurred during his service in Vietnam. It is the nation's highest military honor. 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 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 dissent 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. You know, I was a Green Beret. We didn't worry about stuff like that. You know, and I felt like winning those awards and the medal - I mean, the Distinguished Service Cross, 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.
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 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 one incident in Chicago O'Hare. I didn't feel good about it 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: I had a hard time adjusting. I just sought the right help to get me on the right track. 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. You're the only - 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: 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 are 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. I feel like it. Yes, I do.
MARTIN: Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris, retired, is an Army veteran and soon a Medal of Honor recipient. Sergeant Morris, thank you again for speaking with us. Congratulations.
MORRIS: Thank you for talking to me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.