Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris told high school students to practice commitment, courage and integrity to reach their goals — and to reach out to others when they need a little help.
“I want to let the kids know they’re not out there by themselves,” said Morris, who travels across the country speaking to students of all ages.
It’s something he believes in. Even before he received the Medal of Honor in 2013 for his combat actions during the Vietnam War, the retired U.S. Army soldier was already speaking to students and encouraging other veterans to do the same.
“Teens can achieve anything — if someone tells them they can,” he said. “Grab someone who can help you, give you a boost to pull yourself up.”
The visit Friday included students from Cumberland County High School and Stone Memorial High School in an assembly delayed from September when Knoxville hosted the 2022 Medal of Honor Celebration, which brings together the living recipients of the Medal of Honor. There are 65 living Medal of Honor recipients.
The Medal of Honor is the highest award for military valor in action. It is awarded to a military service member who “distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” in combat.
The event took place in the school’s gym, where the CCHS band and Young Marines honored the veteran’s visit. After the assembly in the gym, Morris answered questions from history students selected from Michael Dibiccaro, Cub Whitson and Andrew Phipps’s classes.
“The students need to know about their military,” Morris said at the assembly. “They need to understand their commitment to this country.”
Director of Schools William Stepp introduced Morris and described the veteran’s experience in the U.S. military, before Morris spoke to the students.
Morris, who was born in Okmulgee, OK, on Jan. 7, 1942, said he came from a poor background, not having much as he was growing up.
“I barely could go to school. I didn’t have someone to tell me, ‘Don’t drop out of school.’ I dropped out of school. Bad decision,” Morris said.
Morris entered the Oklahoma Army National Guard in 1959 and later requested to join the active Army.
When Morris first joined the military, he still had no diploma or GED, and realized his lack of education was a problem. He took a GED test, and passed—but decided that was not enough. Morris then moved on to take night classes while he was in the military, eventually earning his high school diploma.
In 1961, Morris became a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, colloquially known as the “Green Berets,” at the command of President John F. Kennedy.
When Morris joined the Green Berets, he was told that he would be an engineer.
“I didn’t know anything about the math. So, I had to do a lot of studying and burned a lot of midnight oil,” Morris said. “I had to learn all the stuff that I never had in high school. I didn’t have geometry, I didn’t have algebra, I barely had anything above just general math. You can’t go into life with just that.”
Morris wound up going to three different universities, although he never graduated from any of them.
“Education is a continuous process; it never stops. You learn every day,” Morris said.
Similar to how he described education, Morris said that in the Green Berets, the training was both continuous and valuable.
“What I learned as a Green Beret was not to leave anyone behind, in combat or wherever, it doesn’t matter. We don’t leave our brothers behind,” Morris said. “I would love to see you students use the same principle. Don’t leave anyone behind; if you can help, help. Now, I received the Medal of Honor just because of the fact that we don’t leave no one behind.”
During his service as a Green Beret, Morris volunteered to be deployed in Vietnam, shortly after returning from a deployment in the Dominican Republic. The actions that later earned him the Medal of Honor were his valorous actions on Sept. 17, 1969, while commanding the Third Company, Third Battalion of the IV Mobile Strike Force near Chi Lane.
On this day, Morris led an advance across enemy lines to retrieve a fallen comrade and single-handedly destroyed an enemy force that had pinned his battalion from a series of bunkers. He was shot three times as he ran back toward friendly lines with the American casualties, but did not stop until he reached safety.
The Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to Morris in April 1970 for extraordinary heroism during this 1969 battle. After receiving the award, he returned to Vietnam the same month for a second tour.
Morris said that he didn’t make too many friends during his time in Vietnam, but made the decision to take a 19-year-old assigned to him under his wing—who was the only one to come out of the battle “without a scratch.”
However, after they returned to Fort Bragg, Morris’s friend volunteered to skydive and broke his back. This resulted in him being paralyzed from the neck down. Morris is still friends with him today, and says he visits every time he’s in Texas.
“We’re brothers for life, and we don’t leave our brothers behind. We stick with them; we stay with them,” Morris said.
Morris retired at Fort Hood, TX, in May 1985, and returned to his family. He had married his wife, Mary, in 1961. However, the effect the war had on his family was immeasurable.
Mary had been raising the children on her own while Morris was in Vietnam, and said her children “suffered” during their father’s absence.
“They asked a lot of questions, and I had to be the one to try to satisfy them, pacify them and explain to them what the situation was,” she said. “They thought their dad would be back the next day—every plane they saw fly across the sky was their daddy coming home.”
“She’s a trooper,” Morris said. “We’ve been married over 60 years, and she’s with me every step of the way.”
Morris said when he returned from Vietnam, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which he eventually sought care for.
“You would not have known me 15 years ago, because I was really beat up with PTSD,” Morris said. “I didn’t even think I was gonna make it this far, until I got enough courage to turn myself in for help.”
Morris also told the students of the mental health struggles veterans go through every day, including the fact that an average of 22 veterans die by suicide each day.
In May 2013, Morris received an unexpected call from President Barack Obama, informing him that he was to receive the Medal of Honor.
Morris said that he never knew he would receive the Medal of Honor, and that when he did, he knew the reward would be a heavy weight to carry on his shoulders.
“See, there’s much more than just receiving the Medal from the president—it’s what comes after you receive the medal, and how you’re going to show up and how you’re gonna shine,” Morris said. “I respect this medal, and I respect the people behind it, and I’m going to do the best that I can.”
He was told to keep the news confidential—a secret kept for 10 months.
Morris said so much time passed, he became unconvinced this was reality. He decided he would have to “call the White House” to see if he was really to receive the Medal of Honor. Morris was able to get ahold of Lt. Col. Daniel Davis at the Pentagon, who he said “chewed him out” for asking this question.
“He said, ‘If I tell you something’s official, it’s official,’ and hung up the phone,” Morris said. “I said, ‘OK, I guess it’s for real.'”
Morris officially received the Medal of Honor on March 18, 2014, from Obama.
Morris explained that being a Medal of Honor recipient is not something that one has control over, that it is awarded for conspicuous gallantry that goes above and beyond.
“I don’t play football, so I’m not a winner. I don’t play basketball, I’m not a winner. With the Medal of Honor, you don’t win. If you win, it won’t be the Medal of Honor,” Morris said.
“How are you gonna win something when your life is on the line?” Morris asked.
Since receiving the Medal of Honor almost nine years ago, Morris said he felt he had to uphold the reputation. He’s taken speaking engagements across the country, visiting with students from young elementary grades to high schools.
His first school visit after receiving the Medal of Honor was eight years ago, in his hometown—and he hasn’t stopped since.
“My motto is do what you have to do, don’t do nothing less,” Morris said.
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