Melvin Morris, an African-American army veteran, recently received a surprise phone call from President Obama.
“I fell to my knees. I was shocked,” Morris told AP.
Morris and 23 other Army veterans who served in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars recently learned that a congressionally mandated review decided they had been overlooked for Medal of Honor awards due to prejudices against minorities. Next month, President Obama will award the veterans, mostly of Latino and Jewish descent, the highest military commendation at an unusual mass ceremony.
“President Obama said he was sorry this didn’t happen before,” said Morris, one of three living recipients. “He said this should have been done 44 years ago.”
Morris, who claims he “never really did worry about decorations,” was cited for courageous actions during combat operations on Sept. 17, 1969 in South Vietnam . The former Green Beret staff sergeant was injured while recovering the body of his fatally injured master sergeant from a jungle ambush, The Washington Post reported.
Spc. 4 Santiago J. Erevia and Sgt. 1st class Jose Rodela, the other living recipients who are both from San Antonio, were also commended for for courage during combat in 1969 in South Vietnam.
Passed by Congress in 2002, the National Defense Authorization Act required the Army to investigate historical racism among military ranks.
The cases of 6,505 recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross–the second-highest military award–spanning three wars were reassessed, although Congress’ order did not initially take into consideration Black soldiers.
According to The Washington Post, the 12-year review was “an enormous undertaking that sent military personnel officials searching for lost records and battlefield histories amid the complicated politics surrounding the military’s highest honor.”
Of the pool of eligible soldiers who might have been overlooked due to racial or ethnic biases, eight Vietnam veterans, nine Korean war veterans and seven World War II veterans were ultimately found to be deserving of the Medal of Honor.
Obama’s prior challenges to discrimination in the military, particularly prohibiting a ban on gay and lesbian military members, as well as his being the first African-American president instill an even greater meaning to this historic event.
The presentation will take place on March 18 in the White House.
As reported by AP, the posthumous recipients are:
—Sgt. Candelario Garcia, born in Corsicana, Texas, for courageous actions during combat operations in Lai Khe, South Vietnam, on Dec. 8, 1968.
— Spc. 4 Leonard L. Alvarado, born in Bakersfield, Calif., died during combat operations in Phuoc Long province, South Vietnam, on Aug. 12, 1969.
— Staff Sgt. Felix M. Conde-Falcon, born in Juncos, Puerto Rico, killed during combat operations in Ap Tan Hoa, South Vietnam, on April 4, 1969.
— Spc. 4 Ardie R. Copas of Fort Pierce, Fla. killed during combat operations near Ph Romeas Hek, Cambodia, on May 12, 1970.
— Spc. 4 Jesus S. Duran of San Bernardino, Calif., for courageous actions during combat operations in South Vietnam on April 10, 1969.
— Cpl. Joe R. Baldonado, born in Colorado, killed during combat operations in Kangdong, North Korea, on Nov. 25, 1950.
— Cpl. Victor H. Espinoza of El Paso, Texas, for courageous actions during combat operations in Chorwon, North Korea, on Aug. 1, 1952.
— Sgt. Eduardo C. Gomez, born in Los Angeles, for courageous actions during combat operations in Tabu-dong, South Korea, on Sept. 3, 1950.
— Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz, born in New York City, killed during combat operations in Yangpyong, South Korea, on March 6-7, 1951.
— Master Sgt. Juan E. Negron of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, for courageous actions during combat operations in Kalma-Eri, North Korea, on April 28, 1951.
— Master Sgt. Mike C. Pena, born in Newgulf, Texas, killed in action during combat operations in Waegwan, South Korea, on Sept. 4, 1950.
— Pvt. Demensio Rivera, born in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, for courageous actions during combat operations in Changyong-ni, South Korea, on May 23, 1951.
— Pvt. Miguel A. Vera, born in Puerto Rico, killed during combat operations in Chorwon, North Korea, on Sept. 21, 1952.
— Sgt. Jack Weinstein of Saint Francis, Kan. for courageous actions during combat operations in Kumsong, South Korea, on Oct. 19, 1951.
— Pvt. Pedro Cano, born in La Morita, Mexico, for courageous actions during combat operations in Schevenhutte, Germany, on Dec. 3, 1944.
— Pvt. Joe Gandara, born in Santa Monica, Calif., for courageous actions during combat operations in Amfreville, France, on June 9, 1944.
— Pfc. Salvador J. Lara, of Riverside, Calif., for courageous actions during combat operations in Aprilia, Italy, May 27-28, 1944.
— Sgt. William F. Leonard, of Lockport, N.J., for courageous actions during combat operations near St. Die, France, on Nov. 7, 1944.
— Staff Sgt. Manuel V. Mendoza, born in Miami, Ariz., for courageous actions during combat operations on Mount Battaglia, Italy, on Oct. 4, 1944.
— Sgt. Alfred B. Nietzel, born in New York City, for courageous actions during combat operations in Heistern, Germany, on Nov. 18, 1944.
— 1st Lt. Donald K. Schwab, born Hooper, Neb., for courageous actions during combat operations near Lure, France, on Sept. 17, 1944.