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Honored veterans get medal upgrades

Military corrects potential acts of bias to minorities

While under heavy fire, Melvin Morris recovered a comrade’s body.

While under heavy fire, Melvin Morris recovered a comrade’s body.

MIAMI — Melvin Morris was commanding a strike force on a mission near Chi Lang, South Vietnam, when his special forces group came under attack and a fellow commander was killed near an enemy bunker.

Despite massive enemy fire directed at him and his men, hitting him three times, the 72-year-old Morris said Friday that he was able to get to his fallen comrade and recover the body. He also retrieved a map that included strategic information that would have been trouble if it fell into enemy hands.

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More than four decades later, as a way to try to correct potential acts of bias spanning three wars, President Obama will bestow the Medal of Honor on the Florida man and 23 other veterans. They come after a decade-long congressionally mandated review of minorities who may have been passed over for the US military’s highest honor because of long-held prejudices.

Morris became one of the first soldiers to don a Green Beret in 1961 and volunteered twice for deployments to Vietnam during the war. After his Sept 17, 1969, ordeal, the then-Staff Sergeant received a Distinguished Service Cross in 1970. He said he never realized that being black might have kept the higher honor from him.

‘‘I never really did worry about decorations,’’ Morris said.

He got a surprise when the Army contacted him in May and arranged for Obama to call him at his Cocoa, Fla., home. ‘‘I fell to my knees, I was shocked,’’ Morris said. ‘‘President Obama said he was sorry this didn’t happen before, said this should have been done 44 years ago.’’

The unusual mass ceremony, scheduled March 18, will honor veterans, most of Hispanic or Jewish heritage, who already had been recognized with the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military award.

Morris is one of only three of the recipients still living. The others are Specialist Fourth Class Santiago J. Erevia of San Antonio, cited for courage during a search and clear mission near Tam Ky, South Vietnam, on May 21, 1969; and Sergeant First Class Class Jose Rodela of San Antonio, cited for courage combat operations in Phuoc Long province, South Vietnam.

Among those posthumously honored is Private First Class Leonard M. Kravitz, uncle of musician Lenny Kravitz.

The Army did the review under a directive from Congress in the 2002 National Defense Authorization Act.

The law required that the record of each Jewish American and Hispanic American veteran who got a Service Cross in or after World War II be reviewed for possible upgrade to Medal of Honor.

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 and found an eligible pool of 600 soldiers who may have been Jewish or Hispanic.

Of the 24 selected, eight fought in Vietnam, nine in the Korean War, and seven in World War II.

Morris said he is happy to be honored, it is even more important to recognize his friends that never returned home.

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