Melvin Morris vividly remembers the day in September 1969 when he became a war hero in the eyes of others.
Morris was a young Green Beret staff sergeant in South Vietnam. After his master sergeant was killed in a jungle ambush in the vicinity of Chi Lang, Morris, serving as the commander of a Special Forces strike force, went back into the line of fire three times to recover the body and a map case – and was wounded three times in the process.
Duty and mission kept him going, Morris says. “You have to do what you have to do,” he told National Public Radio in an interview. “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.”
Now, more than 44 years later, President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest commendation for combat valor – to Morris and 23 other Army veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War at a White House ceremony on March 18.
The deserving soldiers were originally passed over, a review ordered by Congress in 2002 determined, because they were Hispanic, Jewish or African American.
Morris, an Oklahoma native who lives in Port St. John, Fla., is one of only three veterans in the group of 24 who are still alive. Joining him at the White House ceremony will be Santiago J. Erevia, 68, of San Antonio, Texas, a former specialist 4 who, while serving as a radio telephone operator, displayed “courageous actions” during a search-and-clear mission near Tam Ky, Vietnam, and Jose Rodela, 76, also of San Antonio, a former sergeant first class who distinguished himself during combat in South Vietnam on Sept. 1, 1969, while serving as the company commander of a mobile Special Forces strike force.
Morris, Erevia, Rodela and the other veterans were previously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military honor, which will now be upgraded to the Medal of Honor “in recognition of their gallantry, intrepidity and heroism above and beyond the call of duty.”
The posthumous recipients are:
- Sgt. Candelario Garcia for valor during combat in Lai Khe, South Vietnam, on Dec. 8, 1968.
- Spc. 4 Leonard L. Alvarado for valor during combat in Phuoc Long province, South Vietnam, on Aug. 12, 1969.
- Staff Sgt. Felix M. Conde-Falcon for valor during combat in Ap Tan Hoa, South Vietnam, on April 4, 1969.
- Spc. 4 Ardie R. Copas for valor during combat near Ph Romeas Hek, Cambodia, on May 12, 1970.
- Spc. 4 Jesus S. Duran for valor during combat in South Vietnam on April 10, 1969.
- Cpl. Joe R. Baldonado for valor during combat in Kangdong, North Korea, on Nov. 25, 1950.
- Cpl. Victor H. Espinoza for valor during combat in Chorwon, North Korea, on Aug. 1, 1952.
- Sgt. Eduardo C. Gomez for valor during combat in Tabu-dong, South Korea, on Sept. 3, 1950.
- Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz for valor during combat in Yangpyong, South Korea, on March 6-7, 1951.
- Master Sgt. Juan E. Negron for valor during combat in Kalma-Eri, North Korea, on April 28, 1951.
- Master Sgt. Mike C. Pena for valor during combat in Waegwan, South Korea, on Sept. 4, 1950.
- Pvt. Demensio Rivera for valor during combat in Changyong-ni, South Korea, on May 23, 1951.
- Pvt. Miguel A. Vera for valor during combat in Chorwon, North Korea, on Sept. 21, 1952.
- Sgt. Jack Weinstein for valor during combat in Kumsong, South Korea, on Oct. 19, 1951.
World War II
- Pvt. Pedro Cano for valor during combat in Schevenhutte, Germany, on Dec. 3, 1944.
- Pvt. Joe Gandara for valor during combat in Amfreville, France, on June 9, 1944.
- Pfc. Salvador J. Lara for valor during combat in Aprilia, Italy, May 27-28, 1944.
- Sgt. William F. Leonard for valor during combat operations near St. Die, France, on Nov. 7, 1944.
- Staff Sgt. Manuel V. Mendoza for valor during combat on Mount Battaglia, Italy, on Oct. 4, 1944.
- Sgt. Alfred B. Nietzel for valor during combat in Heistern, Germany, on Nov. 18, 1944.
- 1st Lt. Donald K. Schwab for valor during combat near Lure, France, on Sept. 17, 1944.
Photos: U.S. Army
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