ARLINGTON, Va. — Two dozen families received calls from the Pentagon last summer asking if they would be available to talk to a "high-ranking government official," but otherwise they received little information.
That official turned out to be President Obama, calling to inform veterans or their families that the veterans would receive the nation's highest military award.
Today, Obama will award the Medal of Honor to 24 Army veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam in a White House ceremony. The soldiers, most of whom will be honored posthumously, were identified after a review of records of minority soldiers that was meant to ensure that veterans were recognized with the appropriate medal.
Four of the veterans have Fort Bragg ties, including two of the three still living. They are Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris and Master Sgt. Jose Rodela, who each served in the 5th Special Forces Group, and Pvt. Joe Gandara and Staff Sgt. Felix M. Conde-Falcon, who each served in the 82nd Airborne Division.
'I didn't expect it'
Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris had to steady himself in his Cocoa, Fla., home when he heard Obama's voice on the phone. Obama apologized on behalf of the nation for not awarding Morris the nation's highest military honor.
"I didn't expect it and really didn't believe it," he said. "I never even thought about it."
Morris, 72, served with both the 82nd Airborne Division and the 5th Special Forces Group during a 23-year career that included 16 years at Fort Bragg. He was one of the first soldiers to wear the coveted Green Beret during a visit by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
In Vietnam on Sept. 17, 1969, he was commanding 3rd Company, 3rd Battalion of the 4th Mobile Strike Force near Chi Lang when he led his men across enemy lines to retrieve the body of a fallen soldier.
Morris went behind enemy lines three times during the mission. The third time, he was shot in the chest. Still, he hefted explosives at enemy forces and emptied his rifle while running nearly a quarter of a mile to safety.
"I decided to fight," Morris said.
When he finally made it to his troops, Morris had been shot three times. He said he relied on instinct. "A soldier's got to do what you've got to do," he said.
Now, Morris wants to help soldiers and veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress. Morris said he suffered nightmares and "all of the above" at the end of his career.
Morris, who retired in 1985, eventually sought help at a Veterans Affairs hospital in 1997. He sold his home and moved next door to the hospital to attend outpatient therapy.
He now hopes he inspire others who are in denial about their own needs.
"The key to it is seeking help," Morris said. "You can't just put it behind you."
Morris said he became a Green Beret after hearing stories of men nicknamed "Sneaky Pete" and their secretive training on Fort Bragg. He still owns his original beret, though it is now covered in blood, sweat and tears.
It will be with him today.
Master Sgt. Jose Rodela retired from the Army in 1975, but if officials would let him, the 76-year-old veteran said he would put the uniform back on today.
Rodela and his wife, Evangeline, were at Fort Bragg for more than five years, serving with the 5th Special Forces Group. The couple now live in San Antonio.
Rodela does not like to talk about his service, Evangeline said. And Rodela said his neighbors are unaware of his service or the Medal of Honor.
On Sept. 1, 1969, Rodela was leading a company of Cambodian troops when they came under fire in Phuoc Long province, Vietnam. He led the troops during 18 hours of continuous combat, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire to attend to his wounded soldiers and attack enemy positions.
According to a citation for the Distinguished Service Cross, Rodela disregarded enemy fire to attack the enemy and rally his troops. His clear thinking and quick action prevented more casualties from occurring, the citation reads.
Rodela said he killed the enemy so he could retrieve his wounded and dead soldiers. Those soldiers had been trained and fed by Rodela. He said he is accepting the Medal of Honor on their behalf.
"It's something very special," he said.
Richard Conde had just been told by Obama to keep the news secret, but he couldn't. He had to call the man who gave life to the story of his father, Staff Sgt. Felix Conde-Falcon.
And he needed to talk to Les Hayes, who served as Conde-Falcon's radio operator in Vietnam. The pair ate, slept and fought together.
When Conde-Falcon was killed on April 4, 1969, Hayes was there. He then spent decades trying to find the family he left behind. Hayes, who lives in Russell, Ky., traveled to major cities and called every Conde in the phone book in hopes of finding his fallen comrade's widow or two children.
Less than a decade ago, Hayes finally found Richard Conde. Ever since, the two men have developed an unbreakable bond.
Hayes gave Conde his father's shoulder holster, and he has given him stories of a father Conde never new.
Conde-Falcon was a native of Juncos, Puerto Rico, who was serving with the 1stBattalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne. He died while leading his platoon near Ap Tan Hoa. His son, from Temple, Texas, was 3 years old at the time.
On the day Conde-Falcon was killed, his platoon came across an extensive enemy bunker complex, according to a citation for a previously awarded Distinguished Service Cross. Conde-Falcon's men were selected to assault and clear the bunkers.
Conde-Falcon charged the first bunker, heaving grenades. Without hesitation, he jumped on the roof of three other bunkers and let grenades fly.
After he rejoined his platoon, he came under intense fire. Joined by three other soldiers, he advanced toward the enemy. He fired his machine gun until he ran out of ammunition. He got an M-16 rifle to attack the next bunker but was shot and killed.
Hayes said Conde-Falcon was a "soldier's soldier" who thought the greatest honor was dying for one's country.
"He was an old man to us, which made him a father to us," he said. "I knew he left behind a young widow, a 3-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl. ... When he was killed, I felt real bad for the family because I knew they had to be suffering."
Hayes and other 82nd Airborne Division veterans will be there today in what is expected to be an emotional ceremony.
Conde said the family has waited 45 years to have one last moment with their father. He credits Hayes with making that happen.
"This man right here is my hero. He's brought me my dad. ... I am grateful for him and his family," Conde said. "I already knew that my dad was a hero to the men that he served with, but Les became my hero because he gave me my dad. It was fate that brought us all together."
Miriam Theresa Adams was only a month old when her uncle, Pvt. Joe Gandara, was killed in World War II. But the family, in Santa Monica, Calif., often spoke of him at gatherings. When they did, their voices changed.
"The softness of their voice, it was as though they were always grieving his death," she said.
Gandara's family came from Mexico in the early 1900s, but only one flag draped his coffin when he was brought home, Adams said.
"They were always Americans first," she said. "Joe was proud of his heritage. ... He loved his family, and he wanted to serve his country. He was very proud of that."
Gandara fought in France with 2nd Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.
On June 9, 1944, in Amfreville, France, his detachment came under enemy fire from a strong German force, according to an earlier citation for the Distinguished Service Cross.
After being pinned down for four hours, Gandara volunteered to advance alone to the enemy lines, single-handedly destroying three German machine guns before he was fatally wounded.
Adams said is she excited and proud to receive the medal on her uncle's behalf.
"I'm emotionally taken," she said. "It's such a great honor."
Adams said she is sure her uncle did not have awards in mind when he took on the enemy guns.
"It was about trying to save those soldiers that were beside him," she said.