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Career cop takes command of Hawaii Reserve group

  • Published
  • By Maj. Andra Higgs
  • 4th Air Force Public Affairs
As a young boy growing up in Rutland, Ohio, John Morris rode a purple Huffy bicycle to deliver the TV Guide to residents there. As a seasoned commander recently in Baghdad, Iraq, Morris drove a blue Chevy Blazer and supervised the delivery of more than 40 billion pounds of war-fighting materials to troops there. 

An Eagle Scout with Troop 249 of Pomeroy, Ohio, who earned his achievement badges among the tapestry red maples and county-cork colored oak trees, the creamy white magnolias in the sandstone rolling hills and violet-fringed orchids amid the rugby green farmlands of the Appalachian Plateau surrounding Southeast Ohio, Morris earned the eagles of his colonel rank that now adorn the shoulder boards of his Air Force uniform by managing ground operations, including the movement of more than 100,000 coalition forces and the care of more than 4,000 distinguished visitors through treeless Baghdad International Airport. This included the President of the United States. 

"I think it's wonderful," said Janet Morris of Rutland. The former cub master and den mother is John's mom. "I'm very proud of him." 

Rightfully so. 

Colonel John Morris now commands the 624th Regional Support Group, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Prior to selection for this assignment and his most recent deployment for the war on terrorism, he was chief of security forces for Headquarters 4th Air Force, March Air Reserve Base, Calif. Selected for promotion to the rank of colonel in December 2006, Morris is now at the reins of an organization with more than 700 civil engineer, support, medical and aerial port personnel assigned to the U.S. Air Force Reserve in Hawaii and Guam, operating around the entire rim of the Pacific Ocean. 

"I had 28 people apply for this job and it was an easy choice for me," said Maj. Gen. Robert Duignan, 4th Air Force commander, on selecting Morris for the command position. "I'm expecting great things from you out there [in Hawaii]. Of all the second lieutenants who enter the Air Force only two percent ever reach the rank of colonel and it's very competitive to do so. It's a big opportunity and you've proven that you are up to the responsibility." 

Ever humble, Col. Morris shed light on others at his promotion ceremony. 

"This is a big deal for my family," said Morris, a 1981 graduate of Meigs High School, Pomeroy, Ohio, who, among peers, is known as much for his crew haircut, hearty greetings that always end with a reverberating "HUAH" - a security forces' colloquial expression that means "Heard, Understood and Acknowledged" - as he is for being a rabid Ohio State Buckeye football fan. "I'm honored to have been selected, lucky to have been considered and that General Duignan has trust in my abilities to assume this command position." 

Morris has been a high achiever throughout his military career. 

With so many accomplishments on and off the battlefield, it would be easy to measure the colonel up as a local boy who has done well for himself. In fact, though, it would be more apt to describe him as an apple - a third one - that didn't fall far from its tree. The youngest son of Carl and Janet Morris, of Rutland, Ohio, he is also the third son to serve as a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force. Brother, Jim, a retired Air Force major, is now a school teacher. Brother, Mark, recently retired as an Air Force colonel, was the director of staff for 9th Air Force and Central Command Air Forces, the lead component for all air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. John and Mark served together in Iraq during the highly publicized 2006 battle for Baghdad. Their father, Carl, was an enlisted man in the then-newly formed USAF in 1948. His life-long philosophy for his sons was simple, yet forcefully determined. 

"Do the right thing, love your country, love your God," Carl Morris said, via telephone interview. 

If you believe that in life some things are meant to be, then it was long before the promotion ceremony which buttoned eagle-rank shoulder boards onto Col. John Morris' dress-blue shirt, that his life as an American military officer was decided. A quick look into his family history - long before the current Iraq War, back, in fact, before the Revolutionary War - and someone from among the Morris family has, notably, served honorably the nation's military. Since his Scottish ancestors arrived in the early 1600s and took arms in conflicts with Native Americans, the bar has been set high in terms of military achievement. 

A cousin on his paternal grandfather's side of the family - Private Nelson W. Ward - is a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, the nation's highest military honor. Private Nelson, serving in the Civil War with Company M, 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry, in an act of selflessness, at Staunton River Bridge, Va., June 25, 1864, "voluntarily took part in a charge; went alone in front of his regiment under a heavy fire to secure the body of his captain, who had been killed in the action," according to the citation on the U.S. Army Center of Military History website ( Capt James Ward and two other relatives, served (according to the website: in the Battle of Point Pleasant, W. Va., Oct. 10, 1774, a military conflict that many consider the first battle of the American Revolution. 

So, when Col. John Morris returned to 4th Air Force Headquarters in the fall of 2006 from a four-month tour as the deputy group commander at the 447th Air Expeditionary Group, Sather Air Base, Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, and was awarded the Bronze Star, the Air Force's tenth highest medal, for meritorious achievement while serving in a combat zone, he remained soberly humble about it. 

"I consider myself fortunate, very lucky as there were people who did a lot more. I believe others deserved the Bronze Star more than I," said Col. Morris. He is a graduate of Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, and picked up a pair of second lieutenant bars as a cadet in Air Force ROTC Detachment 650. He holds a master's degree from Troy State University, Troy, Alabama, and is a graduate of Air Command and Staff College and Air War College. He was also named the distinguished academic graduate at the Security Forces Officer Ground Combat Training Course, Ft. Dix, N.J., in 1988. 

"The deployment to Baghdad, without a doubt, has been one of the best opportunities in my life - an exceptional experience. I've been a cop commander at a detention camp in Cuba but, this went above and beyond typical cop duty. As the deputy group commander for more than 700 Airmen, I was the commander's right hand and we had a chance to lead our airmen in combat - we had a great team," he said. 

Encouraging his fellow officers and enlisted personnel to consider a deployment, Morris said doing so pushes one beyond the comfort zone and for him provided an opportunity to work with other branches of government, other Allied air forces and sister services of the U.S. military. 

"You get another perspective when you're in the field, in combat," he said. "It was a leadership challenge and a leadership-building experience. The military challenge of our careers could also be the war of our lifetime. We have to win the war on terrorism." 

Sather AB is located on the west side of Baghdad at the international airport, the hub of U.S. military air operations. Sather sits within the middle of what is known as the Victory Base Complex, a short, but treacherous bomb- and bullet-dodging drive from the International Zone, often referred to as the Green Zone. As the deputy commander of the 447th Air Expeditionary Group, then-Lt. Col. Morris managed the group's support elements - including explosive ordinance disposal teams, civil engineers and security forces - while air support operations were commanded by Col. Ron Rutland, an Air Force Reserve pilot now retired. 

Working each day with other US military forces and the new Iraqi air force, Col. Morris also had to expand his cultural horizon into another comfort zone to accommodate working with leadership from the new Iraqi military. This included functioning within the middle-eastern tradition where Muslim men hug and kiss each other on the cheek as a form of formal greeting. There is a standing expectation for all allied forces formally interacting with Iraqi military and civilian leadership to learn, respect and operate within the societal traditions of the country. 

"They (Iraqi air force personnel) respected us. In terms of what freedom is to us, I can't say they fully understand our form of democracy, as democracy is a new concept, with limits, for Iraqi citizens. They are only now beginning to embrace the concept there. For the most part, though, most Iraqis are very glad we [are] there," he said. "When I left, I was sad - we had become brothers with the Iraqi air force leadership." 

Putting new brothers-in-arms cultural nuances aside, Iraq was and remains, today, a war zone and foremost to Col. Morris' duties was leading his troops in battle against insurgent elements bent on disrupting the transition of the country's newly elected government. Adding to the primary duty was the sizzle of 120-degree temperatures and the need for battlefield Airmen to constantly hydrate and wear, in some cases, more than 60 pounds of personal protective gear and security equipment. 

"Most of our Airmen were young troops, but their love of country and professional pride was outstanding," Col. Morris said. According to 2006 Air Force Personnel Center statistics, 45.6 percent of enlisted Airmen are under the age of 26; 13.4 percent of officers also fall into this demographic. "They believe in why they are there and believe in what they are doing. They believe in their mission and in the cause of their country. They believe they are helping to establish a free Iraq." 

According to Morris, there were at least two things clearly visible on the organizational radar screen during his 127-day Baghdad deployment. Taking time off was not one of them. "We were so busy there was no time to take time off." 

The other, he said - "If we pull out before we finish the mission, I am afraid many of our new friends won't make it. I believe the right thing would be to stay the course to allow the Iraqis to protect and secure themselves someday down the road." 

Believing in the mission, believing in a free Iraq, believing in why they are there often, for U.S. warfighters, means potentially crossing a dangerous line in the sands of war between life and death. This was especially so for the explosive ordinance disposal troops. These Airmen are responsible for locating, diffusing and disposing of IEDs, the improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs, which have claimed the lives of so many Americans in Iraq. 

"The most nerve-racking thing for the commanders was sending our EOD troops out to diffuse explosive devices," said Morris. "I was never scared when I was under fire, but I was scared for our EOD guys. They are the real heroes of the war." 

And when under fire, Morris had a simple philosophy for keeping his troops calm. 

"[I] told jokes during rocket attacks, talked sports, a lot about college football, during and after the attacks," he said. 

After most attacks, Morris and his commander would be first out into the battle space to ensure troops saw and knew their leadership was with them, even in the most perilous of times. 

"In a dangerous world, in combat you have to show your Airmen, by personal example, that you gotta' keep calm, you gotta' keep cool and you gotta' stay positive - even when you're wearing the protective gear. [We] had to show that there is a greater thing than oneself; service before self." 

Service before self, along with integrity and excellence in all one does comprises the Air Force's core values. Every Airman - officer, enlisted and civilian employee - has been asked by Air Force leadership to adopt and adhere to this philosophy. For war zone troops serving in harm's way, the unwritten variable that factors into this mindset is family. For Col. Morris, the father of two, his current assignment in Hawaii comes with a seven-month separation from his wife, Josie, and two daughters, Sarah, 12, and Michelle, 17. The latter, a high school senior, is set to graduate in the spring of 2008 and will attend college in Hawaii next year, where she will join her parents and sister for at least a three-year tour of duty - this time, though, along the sands of a paradise Hawaiian beach instead of the sands of a parched Middle East desert. 

"I'm very proud of him," said Josie, his wife and a licensed nurse. "There is such pride in his family for military service, a family tradition." There are also traditional rules in the 

Morris household. On the day of her father's promotion ceremony, Michelle had school exams which took priority. "In our household, we emphasize the importance of education and making something good of oneself." 

This seems markedly similar to the ethos instilled in Col. Morris and his two brothers by their parents. 

"I was strict with them and there were rules they had to follow," said Janet of her three sons. "It's a great joy to have them around. We went hunting and camping on the Ohio River and we never missed a football game. We always tried to be there. All three boys were well thought of and highly regarded and they have never been in trouble." 

Unless, of course, one considers being in the middle of a war zone. The anxiety of that for her sons was not lost by their mother. 

"The brothers have done a wonderful job," she said, by phone, "but, there was a lot of worry and I turned gray haired in six months." 

This year, the Air Force celebrates its 60th anniversary as a separate service ( and in April 2008, the Air Force Reserve Command does the same. Six decades of change ago, Col. Morris' father, Carl, was a young 

Airmen with a couple of stripes. His pay was $72 a month, he didn't own a car and, according to Janet, "the rent was $100." This year, Col. Morris will earn a six-figure salary, as a military professional leading his Airmen and he shot a wide, approving smile to the suggestion that he could afford to fly his folks to Hawaii for vacation. 

As Carl and Janet's agreeing chuckles to the idea came through phone speaker during the interview, the trumpet playing retreat, signifying the end of the duty day, could be heard in the background over the March ARB, Calif., public address system. 

"My parents and my wife are my heroes," Col. Morris said, concluding the call and the interview. 

As retreat finished, the National Anthem, playing on the base loud speakers, piped through the bomb-shelter thick walls of the 4th Air Force headquarters' building. Col. 

Morris rose from the interview table. As the anthem came home, its last note blared, he placed his blue security forces beret atop his crew cut, bravely stepping out of the room. He left the building and gutted out his signature salutation.