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(CNN) – It was a long overdue honor for some of the bravest men to ever wear an American military uniform. Their great courage was overlooked for decades, and in some cases for more than half a century.
If not for the hue of their skin or their ethnicity, 24 soldiers who faced death in service to their nation would have received the most prestigious medals for their valor long ago.
The President honored those who served with exceptional valor, even if most were not there to hear it.
The review that led to Tuesday’s ceremony also led to adjustments that did not have to do with the prejudices of days past, but rather improved upon existing honors.
Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran, is one of only three honorees still living. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest honor in 1970. Four decades later, the Pentagon upgraded that award to the nation's highest – the Medal of Honor.
“When I received the Distinguished Service Cross I thought that was it. I never worried about anything else above that,” Morris told CNN. “It makes me feel very proud that they’re going back looking at records, and rewarding people for being missed.”
Morris served 23 years in the Army. He joined at age 19 to follow in the footsteps of other veterans in his family.
“As far as going to war, it never bothered me, I never worried about it. When the call came I knew I was going to meet it,” said Morris.
And he did. In 1969, he earned his medal in Vietnam during a battle that left many on his team wounded, and their leader dead.
“Immediately it came to me that I had to recover his body,” said Morris. “Leave no man behind at any cost.”
Under heavy enemy fire, Morris recovered the body of his sergeant, then went back in to retrieve sensitive documents, maps, that had fallen on the battlefield.
“I went in throwing grenades, and I threw, and I threw, and I threw – I don't know how many,” Morris says.
“Now I’m stuck in, but I had gave my assistant orders, don't come and get me, we've already lost enough,” said Morris.
Morris was shot in the chest, again in the right arm, and again on his left hand, on his ring finger.
“When I got wounded the first time, I checked to see if I had an exit wound. I didn’t have a hole in my back,” said Morris.
So he patched up the wound on his chest, and continued fighting.
“The only thing I can do is fight and hope to get out.”
Morris did make it out, and just a few months later returned for another deployment. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in April 1970, and after the parade, received orders to return to Vietnam. He was back in the war by May of 1970.
Morris said he did not feel discrimination when he was in the Army, saying the team spirit trumped everything.
“I was a Green Beret most of the time I was in the military,” said Morris. “To be on a team, normally on that team you bond together. You have to with the type work that we did,” said Morris. “You're all green at the end of the day. Seriously green.”
Morris recently caught up with the man who helped air lift him out of Vietnam when he was shot. That man told Morris he had his dog tags, and those metal IDs were what stopped the bullet from killing him that day in 1969.
We're glad they did. It was an honor to meet him.
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The Lead with Jake Tapper draws not only on Tapper’s deep knowledge of politics and national issues, but also seeks to examine and advance stories across a wide range of topics that demonstrate his own curiosities and interests. Compelling headlines come from around the country and the globe, from politics to money, sports to popular culture, based on news drivers of the day.
The Lead with Jake Tapper airs weekdays at 4 p.m. ET.
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