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Vietnam vet, 62, gets Silver Star 42 years later

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Published:   |   Updated: April 3, 2013 at 06:44 AM

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TAMPA -

The oppressive Southeast Asia sun had not yet come up on Hill 950 when the mortars started to drop. It was June 1, 1971, and U.S. Army Sgt. Ralph A. Morgan, a 20-year-old radioman from Michigan, knew what to do. This was his moment in the Vietnamese jungle.

Four special ops soldiers had gone outside the perimeter of the outpost, situated in the middle of Viet Cong territory near the Laotian border, and were in danger of being killed. Surrounded, Morgan grabbed an M-16 rifle and started firing into the darkness.

He moved to the east wall of the outpost and continued to fire, finding his way to an M-60 machine gun. He, in turn, drew the fire of the enemy, allowing his fellow soldiers to safely get back into the compound, where they later were extricated by helicopter.

Nearly 42 years later, the 62-year-old retiree from Parrish is finally getting recognition for his actions. Morgan was recognized Tuesday in a small ceremony inside the USO center at Tampa International Airport and awarded a Silver Star medal, the third-highest award given to service men and women for bravery and courage under fire.

He stood rigid and looked a bit uncomfortable being the center of attention as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson read an account of the firefight.

Morgan was part of a special forces unit placed in an outpost “deep in enemy territory,” said Nelson, himself an Army veteran. Before dawn, the outpost came under attack by enemy forces that fired automatic weapons, mortars and rockets, he said.

Morgan “drew fire to himself and away from his special operations team,” the senator said. “With disregard to his own personal safety, he exposed himself to heavy enemy fire.”

His actions allowed the team to get back behind fortifications as “Viet Cong fire was coming in from all directions at that point,” Nelson said. After an air strike was called in, the soldiers all made it out alive.

Attending the ceremony were servicemen and women from each branch of the service, Morgan’s family from as far away as Michigan, and John Rinaldi, a Vietnam veteran who has never met Morgan.

“Welcome home,” Rinaldi, in a black “Vietnam Veteran” T-shirt and black military beret, yelled from the other side of the room before the ceremony began.

Later, Rinaldi said: “It’s better late than never that someone gets recognized for gallantry and service to his country.”

Morgan’s son, Jacob, 28, of Michigan, said he knew his father was a Vietnam War hero.

“I think it’s amazing that he gets his Silver Star 40-some years later,” he said. Still, his dad remains humble.

“He’s pretty nervous about this whole situation,” he said.

At the time, Morgan said, he didn’t really consider his actions heroic. He was just doing what he was trained to do.

“Somebody had to do a job,” he said. Special operations teams are trained for warfare and actually look forward to “the challenge of combat,” he said. “It’s a high-pressure job; it’s a life-and-death business.”

Until you get into that situation, he said, “You’re just a guy who went through the training.”

He was aware paperwork was filed decades ago to recognize his heroism, but the paperwork apparently got lost. He was reminded of the overdue honor when he attended a recent veterans’ convention. Later, he wrote to Nelson’s office asking for help.

Nelson said Morgan’s paperwork was “shuffled to the side” at the close of the war 40 years ago.

“It is 42 years later, yes” Nelson said, “but it’s not too late. It is fitting that we can give this soldier, this sergeant the recognition he deserves and that a grateful nation can say to him, ‘Thank you and job well done.’ ”

Morgan typifies the modesty of that era’s soldier, Nelson said. Morgan knew he had been nominated for the medal but never said anything about it for four decades.

“They are so humble, they don’t want any credit for their heroism,” Nelson said. Plus, it was a tumultuous time in America, with a sharp division about the war in Vietnam and rancor directed at returning soldiers.

“I was one of those guys who was spit on in the Port Authority in New York,” Morgan said, referring to his return to the United States after his tour of duty. “I was ashamed.”

But on Tuesday, pride overcame those memories. He said he shares this award with his comrades in arms and every other soldier who does his or her duty while under fire.

“It’s still difficult to talk about those events,” he said. “But now I can clear my conscience. I’m getting those ghosts out of the closet that have been haunting me for so long.”


kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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