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African-American Medal of Honor recipient is Black History Month speaker at Fort Benning
Story by Franklin Fisher on 02/22/2019
FORT BENNING, Ga. African-Americans should continue to seek opportunity in the U.S. military and to aim to excel in their service, an African-American who earned the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War said at a Black History month observance here Feb. 22.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, 77, who is also one of the nation’s very first Green Berets, made the remarks before an audience of Soldiers at the National Infantry Museum Theater.
Morris was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1970 for his 1969 battlefield gallantry in Vietnam, when under heavy enemy fire he brought dead and wounded comrades back to friendly lines, knocked out enemy machine gun emplacements and bunkers, and was wounded three times.
But in 2014, he was one of 24 former Soldiers whose awards of the Distinguished Service Cross the nation’s second-highest military award were raised to the nation’s highest, the Medal of Honor. That followed a review of U.S. military records to gauge whether service members who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross may have been unfairly denied the Medal of Honor because of ethnicity, race or religion.
In his remarks at the museum, Morris noted that in 1959 he enlisted in the Oklahoma National Guard, but soon enlisted in the Regular Army, eager to make the most of opportunities opening up to African-Americans.
For much of the Army’s history, Morris told the audience, military service had been closed to African-Americans, but by the time he entered service, that had changed, but there were still relatively few blacks in senior positions, he said.
In the decades since, he said, “we’ve come a long, long ways, a long ways,” including appointment of African-Americans as general officers. They included, he said, one who was seated in the audience, Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning.
“I tell ya,” said Morris, “I was surprised to see him,” he said of Brito. “I didn’t realize he’s African-American, and a two-star general, a major general.
“That’s one thing we always did lack when I was in the military,” said Morris. “We didn’t have many minority officers, especially in high rank even at platoon level and company level, we just didn’t have that many.
“So,” he continued, “when you see leadership, you’re proud, you’re proud to see it, especially the generals and command sergeant majors and the colonels nowadays.”
“But,” Morris told the audience, African-Americans “gotta keep pushing. We can’t become complacent.” He said blacks should “keep pursuing” military careers until there is no question of any lingering barriers to their advancement.
Shortly after Morris’ remarks, Brito took the stage to thank him, saying, “Please rest assured that there are many serving now and many that will serve in the future that will fully realize we walk on a path that Soldiers like yourself have forged for us.
“And,” Brito added, “I say that for Soldiers of all ethnicities, races, religions and creeds, but, as you illustrated, African-Americans as well. And what you showed us, and what we’ll show the Soldiers of the future, that with opportunity, there are no boundaries to what you can succeed in.”
For one audience member, Sgt. Jeremy Bryant, Morris’ remarks offered an inspiring example of one who “went above and beyond” to seek opportunity and perform well.
“I love the fact that he went above and beyond and just decided to go active Army and after that decided to go Special Forces,” said Bryant, a supply sergeant with Company D, 2nd Battalion, 58th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade.
Indeed, said Bryant, he’d recently been weighing whether to volunteer for service with an Army Security Forces Assistance Brigade, and while listening to Morris, he decided to volunteer.
“Definitely made up my mind,” said Brant. “I’m glad I came here to hear that and witness that and to see him as well.”
In September, 1969, near Chi Lang in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, Morris, then a 27-year-old Green Beret staff sergeant, was leading a strike force drawn from Company D, 5th Special Force Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, when they encountered an enemy mine field and were attacked by an enemy force.
According to the written citation that accompanied the medal, Morris heard by radio that a fellow team commander had been killed near an enemy bunker and immediately reorganized his men for further action and moved forward, splitting off from the main group with two other Soldiers to recover the team commander’s body.
The enemy thereupon turned their fire on the three, wounding the two with Morris.
Morris helped them back to safety, then charged ahead into “withering enemy fire” while his men laid down fire to suppress that of the enemy, according to the citation.
Enemy machine gun emplacements continued to train their fire on Morris, but he knocked out the emplacement with hand grenades and kept going, wiping out four bunkers. When he reached the bunker closest to the fallen team commander, Morris fended off the enemy, got to the commander’s body, then, though wounded, got back to friendly lines.
During the engagement, Morris was wounded three times as he’d fought his way forward.
Morris’ “extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty,” the citation reads, “are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflected great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”