Former USMC EOD Tech Johnny Morris Still Helping Vets Relax While Thriving On Alabama’s Gulf Coast
By Barry Smith, Boot Campaign
There is a famous quote from an unknown source that is often repeated around Memorial Day and other American military holidays that goes as follows: “May we never forget freedom isn’t free.”
For U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Johnny Morris, a Boot Campaign Veteran Ambassador, that reminder to “never forget” will not be an issue for him the rest of his life, even as he spends most of his time these days on a boat fishing for the big catch in the waters of Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
“Memorial Day is a day to reflect on the times, good and bad, that I had with guys who I can’t call and talk to anymore,” admits Morris, who medically retired in April 2013 after serving eight years and nine months in the Marines, including one tour to Iraq and two to Afghanistan. “I will generally call other guys who knew the same guys and we talk about the guys not with us anymore. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes cry, but we keep those guys memories alive.”
Morris was part of a special breed of Marines, spending his final years in the military as an explosive ordnance disposal technician (EOD). He prided himself in being part of this stellar group of uniquely qualified specialists, who could bring calm to others in the midst of very tense situations. He survived many dangerous challenges throughout his career despite being severely injured in his second deployment to Afghanistan. Several of his comrades, however, paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“The EOD community as a whole has sacrificed a lot of great men in the performance of their duty,” explains Morris. “I lost my first team leader, Gunnery Sergeant E.J. Pate, a week before I was injured. He was our section leader at the time, and a role model for every EOD technician in our unit. When they told me that I would be collecting his body and personal items, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I prayed that it was a mistake and that E.J. was just missing somehow and that I would find him, and he would be fine. I remember seeing his helmet laying in a field all by itself, torn to shreds. That is when I knew he was gone.
“Waves of sadness, misunderstanding, sorrow, and rage came over me,” he remembers vividly. “I wanted revenge. I knew what it was to hate. I had never taken our job as personally as I did that day and thereafter. It probably did not help me do my job, looking back on it.”
Although his grandfather Thomas Morris was a U.S. Army veteran who did three tours in Vietnam, Morris knew he would be a Marine when he was just a kid growing up in Loxley, Ala.
When he was still a youngster, Morris and his family were at the airport picking up his uncle Thomas Morris, Jr., who was a Marine sergeant returning from Operation Desert Storm. When he saw his uncle emerge from the aircraft, he mentioned to his mother that he wanted to be a Marine when he grew up. Approximately 10 years later as a 17-year-old in July 2004, he had his parents sign the paperwork that would enable him to enlist in the Marine Corps’ Delayed Entry Program and a short while later found himself first stationed Okinawa, Japan.
Morris served two years in Okinawa as a heavy equipment mechanic at Marine Wing Support Squadron 172, before returning to the U.S. in Feb. 2007 where he was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., as part of the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion.
He was deployed to Iraq in Oct. 2007 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom where he spent seven months. His actions earned him a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. While in Iraq, he made a lateral move in the Marines to become an EOD technician, and returned to Camp Lejeune in April 2008, and then received further training at EOD school at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
Although his time in Iraq helped Morris in the process of becoming an EOD technician, it was his in-the-field experience in Japan that really solidified his decision.
“I kind of made my mind up in Okinawa when we were pushing down some trees and came upon this Japanese mortar pit from World War II,” reflects Morris. “All of it had been in the ground until we uncovered it, and everybody was super tense. There was a real tense charge in the air, and I remember the EOD guys showed up and you could feel that tension stop. That feeling stuck out in my mind. Those EOD cats are here, and we are going to be alright. I wanted that.
“I joined the Marine Corps to do something,” he clarifies. “Everybody told me that you should do a job in the military that you could use when you get out. Originally, I wanted to be an armorer, because I’d worked in a gun shop growing up. When I got to Japan I found out what it was like to be a maintenance guy, and the higher rank you get the more paperwork you had to do. I didn’t join the Marines to do paperwork. When these EOD guys showed up, everyone seemed to relax, and that was kind of cool. That’s when I made up my mind I wanted to be an EOD tech.”
From Oct. 2009 to April 2010, Staff Sgt. Morris took part in Operation Enduring Freedom with the first of
his two deployments to Afghanistan. His contributions on his first deployment to Afghanistan earned him a Combat Action ribbon and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medial with a “V” signifying acts of valor.
His second deployment came in April 2011, an assignment that led to him suffering traumatic brain injuries and massive damage to his legs resulting from two separate improvised explosive device (IED) blasts.
Within three days, arriving on July 5, 2011, he was transported to what is now known as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Hospital in Bethesda, Md. He spent nearly a year in rehabilitation at Walter Reed before transferring back to Camp Lejeune, where he medically retired on April 29, 2013.
His heroic efforts on behalf of his country earned him two Purple Heart medals and a Bronze Star medal with a “V.”
Bethesda was not just the site of the Alabama native’s lengthy recovery, but also the location of two major milestones in his life — his marriage to wife Natalie and the birth of his son Gage. While he grew up with Natalie, meeting her in middle school and graduated high school with her in 2004, he says the couple did not start dating until 2010. They were married on Sept. 19, 2011, in Bethesda, and currently reside back in Mobile with their son and daughter Gabrielle.
“My kids are great,” reports the proud Marine vet, a life-long University of Alabama football fan, who says he loves to hunt, fish, shoot and hang out with his wife and kids now that his military career is over. “My son is in kindergarten and my daughter is in preschool, and they always know when I need a hug.
“I think the kids understand patriotism, but not the word,” Morris adds. “My son tells people that I am the
flag. They know the pledge of allegiance and know not to be disrespectful when the national anthem is being played. They understand that Dad and his friends have fought to keep them safe.”
Marine Jeremy Collins recently opened their own inshore charter fishing service under the Contact Front Charters LLC banner, and the duo leads local excursions in and around Mobile Bay in search of such prized catch as red drum, sea trout and flounder, to name a few.
“I met Jeremy when I was like five years old when we were on the same all-star baseball team, and we became friends very quickly,” recalls Morris. “We spent almost every day together since we were five.
He went to a different high school, but we joined the Marine Corps at the same time as part of a “buddy program” to go through recruit training together and make sure we were in the same platoon. Now we volunteer our time with other veteran organizations and get vets out and take them fishing.”
As he continues his admirable and dedicated service to the military community, one of those organizations Morris spends time with as a Veteran Ambassador is Boot Campaign. He found out about Boot Campaign in 2014 thanks to USMC Staff Sergeant (Ret.) Johnny “Joey” Jones, a fellow combat-wounded EOD technician, a fellow combat-wounded EOD technician, who was the former chief operating officer of the Texas-based non-profit charged with raising awareness and providing assistance to current military, veterans and their families.
“Joey introduced me, and I was instantly drawn to how welcome everyone at Boot Campaign made me feel,” says Morris. “I didn’t feel judged or like they were trying to ‘show me off.’ I love to talk about Boot Campaign every chance I get.
I know that their programs have been proven to help vets, and if I can get people who need help in touch with Boot Campaign then I will do everything I can to make it happen.”
If Morris can interest any of those veterans to join him on his boat for a little fishing and R&R, he’ll make that happen, too.
Learn more about Boot Campaign at