Former Green Beret Melvin Morris of Port St. John, FL will receive the Medal of Honor -- four decades late -- for actions in Vietnam in 1969.

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Port St. John, FL (Florida Today) -- There are tens of thousands men seemingly just like Melvin Morris living in Brevard County.

Men of a certain age who have served their country in both war and peace.

Many ache not only with the pains of advancing years, but also from wounds suffered long ago in such places as St. Lo, the Chosin Reservoir or Khe Sanh. Some can be found at the local VFW or American Legion halls, while others have never joined a veterans organization. Sometimes only a ball cap bearing a military patch gives them away.

That said, there are none like Melvin Morris, a 72-year-old retired Army sergeant first class who lives in Port St. John.

President Barack Obama awarded Melvin Morris of Port St. John the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony Tuesday, March 18.

He is a Medal of Honor winner.

Slim choices

Career choices were slim for black men in Oklahoma in the 1950's. Morris, born and raised in the farming town of Okmulgee, figured he could work in the fields, maybe in carpentry.

Or join the military.

Morris signed up with the Oklahoma Army National Guard in 1959. Shortly after he asked to join the active duty Army.

"Being in the military was better than being in trouble," he said. "There wasn't that much work."

Morris found his niche in the military. By 1961, he was one of the first soldiers donning the "green beret" of the U.S. Army Special Forces.

He twice volunteered for duty in Vietnam.

In 1969, Morris was a staff sergeant serving as an adviser to "civilian irregular defense forces." On Sept. 17, 1969 they were on a search and destroy mission near Chi Lang.

"We moved out that day, moving across a rice field," he said. "We came to the village. An old lady was singing, and there was no activity in the village."

The eerie quiet drew suspicion, then the troops heard gunfire in the distance. Then came a call that the commander with a nearby company had been shot three times. A subsequent firefight led to more casualties. Two soldiers were left unscathed among the Special Forces, Morris and a specialist.

"It was only five of us advisers, two were wounded and one killed," he said. "I knew I had to go and recover his body. You don't leave a soldier behind."

Morris took two volunteers to get the body of the sergeant. Both the volunteers were wounded. He assisted them back to the line of the main forces.

"I took two bags of hand grenades, I threw hand grenade and hand grenade," he said.

He went back alone to recover the body and retrieve the maps and documents the commander was carrying.

"He said, 'Doc, I'm going to go get him,' " said J.C. Glynn, a medic in the unit who was there with Morris at the time. "Nobody goes into war thinking they are going to be a hero."

Former Green Beret Melvin Morris, of Port St. John, will receive the Medal of Honor — four decades late — for actions in Vietnam in 1969. A congressional review found 24 veterans were passed over the honor because of their race. Posted 3/16/14

Morris again charged into enemy fire to approach the nearest enemy bunker, throwing grenades into it. As his men laid a base of suppressive fire, he neared the position of the team leader's body. When a machine gun emplacement directed fire at him, he annihilated the position with hand grenades and continued his assault, eliminating three additional bunkers. Driving the enemy from the entrenchment nearest the fallen team leader, he retrieved his comrade and started to his troops' position.

As he neared his strike force position he was shot three times, in the right chest, in the right arm and left hand, leaving his ring finger almost severed. He also retrieved a case with maps and documents that could have given the enemy an advantage had it fallen into their hands.

Morris received the Distinguished Service Cross — the Army's second-highest commendation — for his actions that day.

He went on to serve 22 years in the Army, retiring as a sergeant first class in 1985. He moved to Brevard in 1989.

He displayed his medals in a gold-colored frame. It never entered his mind that he should have left a space for the nation's top military honor

Glynn, who lives in Titusville, said his friend is a hero who deserves the Medal of Honor.

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"I'm really proud of Melvin," he said. "He's real humble."

Ceremony Tuesday

Morris is among 24 men — only thee of whom are living — who received the Medal of Honor at a special White House ceremony on Tuesday.

The mass awarding of medals has its roots back in 2002 when Congress ordered a review of the war records of Jewish and Hispanic veterans to see if any might have been passed over for the Medal of Honor because of anti-Semitism or racism. The review was later expanded to include African-Americans.

The Pentagon said the Army reviewed the cases of the 6,505 recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

"From the beginning of the encounter, until he was medically evacuated, Morris reacted to each situation with a professionalism, and single-minded determination possessed by few men," according to the information released by the Army about Morris.

Told about the award months ago, Morris had to keep it secret until everything was completed for the award.

An Army colonel last Maycalled to tell Morris that a high-ranking government official would be calling him. He went about his business until the next call when the colonel asked him to hold for the high ranking government official, President Barack Obama.

"He said, 'I want to apologize to you for your not getting the Medal of Honor 44 years ago,' " he said the president told him.

Though he could not believe it was the president calling him, Morris said he played along just in case. But still not sure, he checked back with the colonel.

"I called him back and said 'Is this for real? Am I really getting the Medal of Honor?' " Morris said.

It really was the president. It was a relief to Morris when he could finally talk about it. When first told he had to keep it secret even from most family members and fishing buddies, which he said was difficult.

"We were told to keep it confidential," he said. "It was difficult."

"I'm proud," his wife, Mary Morris, said. "I'm happy for him. This is something he never discussed. He never said he deserved this."

The Morrises have been married 51 years. While her husband was off at war Mary Morris was left to care for their three children — two boys and a girl — aided by help from her sisters.

"I prayed every day," she said. "I loved my husband and I wanted him to be with us."

Morris, like other Vietnam veterans returned to a nation that was mostly indifferent to the troops, or worse. Some were met with hostility.

"When I came back to the states on the plane, the only people out there were my wife and my kids," said Morris, who everyday flies the American flag outside his Port St. John home.

One son, Melvin Morris Jr. served in the Air Force and the other, Maurice, served in the Army. Daughter Jennifer works in the medical field. They all celebrate their father's award.

"At first when he told us he was getting that distinction it almost brought tears to my eyes," Melvin Morris Jr said. "In the sight of fear he did what he had to do."

Morris said his dad never talked about deserving the award. Few people knew that he was already a highly decorated soldier.

"He taught us all to be proud Americans and to be patriotic," said Melvin Morris Jr, who lives in Deland. "I'm extremely proud of my dad. People tell me he is such a humble person. I wish everybody would realize the sacrifice this person made for us."

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