It has been a long time coming - but 33 years after being awarded an American medal a New Zealand army officer has finally received it.

Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Christopher Mullane was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1979 in recognition of his contribution to leadership in the United States military.

But an administrative fault cast doubt on his eligibility for America's sixth-highest military decoration.

That was finally put right at a ceremony at the Devonport Returned and Services Association yesterday.

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The medal presentation, by Major General Roger Mathews of the US, was witnessed by former NZ Defence and Foreign Minister Phil Goff and MPs Maggie Barry and Cam Calder.

"We're here to recognise excellence," said General Mathews.

"This is long overdue for the service you gave to our country."

In the post-Vietnam War era, as the military was starting to look closely at its role in Southeast Asia, the NZ soldier was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, and appointed to a leadership post within three months. Colonel Mullane says this was quite terrifying.

"All of the other guys at the time, all had high-level tertiary educations ... and I was running around saying, 'Last week, I couldn't even spell "leadership" and this week I'm teaching other people about it'."