Three-tour combat vet: Every month includes a Memorial Day

Jon Morgan, center, in Iraq with fellow soldiers Josh Zapzalka, left, and Ryan Burdge. Photos courtesy of Jon Morgan

Jon Morgan, center, in Iraq with fellow soldiers Josh Zapzalka, left, and Ryan Burdge.
Photos courtesy of Jon Morgan

By Jeff Keeling

It was 10 years ago this month, but Capt. Jon Morgan remembers it like it was yesterday.

Then an enlisted soldier, the 2000 Science Hill High School graduate was on his second combat deployment in the Middle East with the “Triple Deuces” – the Army’s Second Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment out of Fort Drum, N.Y. Two years earlier, Morgan had cut his teeth during a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.

There, Morgan – who first enlisted shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks – had seen two of his mentors killed in a raid on a Taliban compound. Now he was in Iraq, with a 2-year-old daughter and year-old son back home, and his unit was escorting high-ranking officers around the chaos that was Baghdad circa 2006.

Jon Morgan

Jon Morgan

In Kandahar, a grenade had killed Sgt. Esposito, and a bullet had taken Sgt. Lagman’s life. In urbanized Baghdad, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were the primary danger.

A truck with some of Morgan’s comrades had entered an area with only one way in and one way out. On its return, it passed over a pressure plate that had been placed on the road, which in turn activated an IED, and just like that, three of his buddies were dead.

“That deployment was very rough on us,” says Morgan, who works full time, serves as a Captain in the 7244th Medical Support reserve unit out of Mt. Carmel, and is completing a second degree (this one in social work) at East Tennessee State University.

Morgan served a final combat tour in southern Iraq after leaving active duty, getting his bachelor’s in criminal justice and his Second Lieutenant’s stripes in ETSU’s ROTC program, and entering the Medical Service Corps.

Morgan lost 17 team members on his first two deployments. “There’s not one month that goes by that I don’t have a Memorial Day, that I don’t stop and think about my friends,” he says. “Honestly, there’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think, ‘Thank you.’”

‘Survivor’s guilt’

Though they’ve served their country admirably and learned very transferable skills about hard work and team play, combat veterans in the post 9/11 era are prone to a host of psychological difficulties, Morgan says.

“What affected my decision to go into social work was seeing what has happened to all the vets when we come home,” he says. “Most of my peers have severe alcohol dependency issues, or drug issues, marital issues.”

Morgan wasn’t immune, even with a college degree and officer’s stripes.

After transitioning out of his Medical Service Corps assignment in early 2013, he settled his family in Johnson City, but he didn’t have the easiest time finding a job. Then his wife (now ex) decided to move back to her native New York. Morgan followed, but that didn’t work out and his marriage ended.

“I went from having a military job to having no income basically, a failed marriage, my children are up in New York and I’m having to come back down here to Tennessee,” Morgan recalls. “Luckily I had my parents who took me in, otherwise I would have been a homeless veteran.”

He needed more than just his parents’ love and support, though. In addition to the IED incident and the night sergeants Esposito and Lagman were killed, Morgan had other haunting memories. Esposito’s voice had come to Morgan once in Iraq, and it may have saved his life but it didn’t blunt the trauma he endured.

The words Morgan recalled in Iraq had been spoken when he was a young private facing his first real combat situation.

Jon Morgan, pictured here in Iraq, was a gunner in Afghanistan firing 81 and 120 millimeter mortars.

Jon Morgan, pictured here in Iraq, was a gunner in Afghanistan firing 81 and 120 millimeter mortars.

“He was like, ‘hey, I know this is a first deployment, your first time in a firefight. This is where heroes are made. You either go home with a medal pinned to your chest or you go home with a flag draped over you.’ That man, he went home in a box, but we have never forgotten him.”

As he drove the lead truck in a Baghdad convoy, he saw a Chock Full O Nuts coffee can on the side of the road and “had a bad feeling.”

“I heard Sergeant Esposito’s voice, and I sped up,” Morgan says. The coffee can masked an IED, but Morgan’s tactic worked. It was activated by a cell phone, and the bomber hit the button a bit late due to the truck’s acceleration.

“The explosion hit the back door, and no one got badly hurt.”

All the incidents took their toll.

“Coming back from there, just trash on the side of the road, until I got my dog a year ago, was still freaking me out,” Morgan says.

Jon Morgan and Barkley on the Appalachian Trail at Roan Mountain.

Jon Morgan and Barkley on the Appalachian Trail at Roan Mountain.

It had been a long road from the patriotic fervor that prompted Morgan to quit community college and sign up. His grandfather, Sam Morgan, had driven Higgins boats in World War II, delivering Marines to beachheads in the Pacific. His uncle, Jim Brinkley, had served in Germany during the Cold War and had encouraged Morgan on his 18th birthday to consider military service.

When 9/11 occurred Morgan was still casting about for a school major. “So it was like, ‘ok, it’s time to go. If they can do it, I can do it, and I need to do it.’”

“It” was all Morgan bargained for and more. He remains impressed with how quickly he and his unit went from being a bunch of different individuals to a team. But that team suffered great loss in service.

“We watched our friends that were up in front of us end up taking a bullet instead of us, so there’s a lot of survivor’s guilt.”

The road back 

In many aspects, Morgan says military life prepares people to be very productive, successful members of civilian society – if they can get past the “survivor grief” and other traumas many of them face.

Morgan encountered a lot of headwinds when he returned to civilian life. He’d run six separate clinics in the Medical Service Corps, but was passed over for a job for which he was well-qualified. It went to a relative of someone who had a role in the hiring.

“I was almost a statistic,” Morgan says of his reactions to the difficulties he faced. He eventually found a job, but being apart from his kids most of the time was hard, and the ghosts of combat were ever-present as well. Then he tried the Veteran’s Center, an arm of the VA, and started seeing a counselor named Maria.

Morgan is traveling sections of the Appalachian Trail as part of his healing.

Morgan is traveling sections of the Appalachian Trail as part of his healing.

It’s common for veterans to wonder how anyone who hasn’t been in their shoes can give them advice on how to integrate back into civilian society, Morgan says, but of the Veterans Center he adds, “they get it.”

They’ve got veterans down there, they’ve got people who have worked with veterans their entire career. Maria, she’s not a veteran, but she gets us. She held that mirror up there for me to take a good hard look at myself and be like, ‘ok, this is what I want to change about myself – I want to be productive, I don’t want to be victimized by my past.’”

Morgan spends a lot of time on the Appalachian Trail with Barkley, his border collie – the one who’s helped him get past the PTSD associated with roadside bombs.

“We’ve done over 100 miles along the Appalachian Trail, and that’s been part of my healing,” Morgan says. “I got through a lot of stuff in counseling, and out in the woods I’m going back to what I learned in the infantry, but now I’m doing it for fun.”

He’s got a girlfriend and a good life, and is looking forward to helping other veterans.

“What drives me is to help the vets to adjust to a new lifestyle and accept what has happened and not move past it, but remember those we’ve lost and accept it and go forward and have a life that the fallen don’t get to have.”



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