JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – “I grew up with stories of all my family members all the way back to the Revolutionary War answering the nation’s call,” Jonathan Morgan said as the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 terror attacks approached this week.
That call came for Morgan 20 years ago in the shock and horror of 9-11’s immediate aftermath.
“I view it as our generation’s Pearl Harbor, so I felt it was my responsibility and duty to act and serve,” said Morgan, now an Army Reserve Captain serving in New Mexico.
Morgan was driving toward Northeast State Community College – where the then-20-year-old was studying to be a paramedic – when news of the first plane hitting a tower came over the radio.
“That event changed everything for a lot of people,” he said.
It also changed the trajectory of Morgan’s life.
His mother, Linda, remembers many young people talking about serving after the attacks.
“I think there was a lot of conversations at school and all the guys were talking about joining,” she said.
Morgan took it a step further with visits to the recruiting office in Johnson City.
“’We’ve had an attack, we know who the people are and America is going after ‘em,'” Morgan remembered thinking. “‘I want in. I want to fulfill the service that my ancestors had given to this country.'”
His mother remembers those recruiting visits getting more serious for the young man whose great uncles had served in World War II.
“They talked more and more and she took him to Knoxville, and that’s pretty much, it was a done deal by then,” Linda Morgan said.
“Al Qaeda took responsibility for it, and by that November I had gone down and enlisted,” Morgan said.
And he has a recommendation for people as they recall, or maybe even first learn of, the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Ultimately, the 9-11 Memorial is about the people who lost their lives that day and the loved ones that carry on. Remember them. Keep them. That was a horrific event and just remember them. Remember what they go through from day to day.”
To the heat of battle
The next March, his proud parents arrived for boot camp graduation at Fort Benning, Ga. with two cartons of a special Johnson City treat per his request — Dr. Enuf soda.
“When we picked him up at Fort Benning, that was the first thing we handed him was his Dr. Enuf, and he guzzled two right then,” Linda Morgan said.
But that responsibility to serve took Morgan much further away than Georgia. The young man who loved hiking and had been the youngest member of the Unicoi County Search and Rescue team at 16 joined the 10th Mountain Division.
“I was very happy to get assigned that position,” Morgan said.
By late summer 2003, he was boots on the ground in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.
As a young soldier in Kandahar, Morgan was what he called an “11 Charlie mortarman – indirect fire infantryman is what they call it,” he said.
“We’d go out there and we would engage Taliban and Al Qaeda force.”
Left behind were a mother, father (John) and sister who were worried about their only son and brother.
“You’re proud but still yet you’re leery of what might happen, what’s going to happen,” Linda Morgan said. “You’re not supposed to worry about things you have no control over, but as a mother, you might as well forget that cause that’s not gonna happen. You’re going to worry regardless.”
Morgan remembers that first deployment, one of three to the Middle East, well.
“We also had a mission to win hearts and minds, to help the Afghan people. That was a huge part of our mission – it’s not just go out there and fight.”
He said civilians “were suffering too” and that one aspect of the Army’s mission was “to help give them a better quality of life as well.”
Morgan said troops would often enter an area and ask what type of help they needed, after which teams like civil affairs and engineering would enter to help locals build better infrastructure.
“We were pretty well received by the civilian population,” he said.
Rest didn’t always come easy at night back in Johnson City, where his parents took comfort in the world’s connectedness.
“You look at the sun, you look at the moon, you think, ‘ok this is the same sun, same moon shining on Jonathan wherever he is, whatever he’s doing,'” Linda Morgan said. “And you can only pray, and boy did we do a lot of that, that he’ll get home safe and sound.”
Staying the course
Morgan did get home safe and sound. His enlisted hitch was up, but he decided to finish college and become an officer. For the past 15 years, he’s been a reserve officer and done two more Middle East deployments.
He said he’s come to love military life and would re-enlist without hesitation.
“My parents, my wife, my sister, they’ve always supported me through all of it,” Morgan said. “It’s been tough at times but – that’s life.
“I’ve made friends I can call up in a heartbeat and say ‘I need help,’ or if they call me and say ‘I need help.’ I haven’t seen some of them in 18 years and we pick up like, ‘we’re there for you.’ This is some of the camaraderie that we all look for, and we have it here.”
One positive outcome for the U.S. Department of Defense coming out of the past 20 years has been great strides in helping soldiers and veterans confront the psychological and physical toll service can take, Morgan said.
“They have created these amazing programs to help veterans and to help all DOD,” Morgan said. “If anyone is looking for those resources, all they have to do is reach out to their chain of command, to their local sources that they have available. And usually, veterans know exactly where to go to get that. And we have really increased all those resources to help.”
He’s in New Mexico, more than halfway through a three-year assignment as a medical operations planner for Army hospital units. Morgan is ensuring they have the best-trained clinicians and great infrastructure.
“How can we take these pieces of the puzzle, put them together and make something that is really going to increase soldiers’ well-being,” he said of his mission.
The day the towers fell has remained in the front of Morgan’s mind.
“Through all this time, it’s about the people that lost their lives and the loved ones,” he said. “My view of that has not changed. It’s been a day of infamy and will continue to be a day of infamy and we must remember that day.”
He said it’s part of what keeps him serving even as he approaches the 20-year mark.
“I plan on staying in. I’m not ready to hang it up yet, I’m still young enough, there’s a lot of work to be done, and I’m going to hang in for the long haul.”