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Tom Morton: Losing My Mentor, Finding Peace

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 11, 2023 3:01 am

Tom Morton: Losing My Mentor, Finding Peace

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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July 11, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Sgt. Joe L. Wrightsman was not only Lance Cpl. (ret.) Tom Morton's mentor, he was a hero of the highest caliber who died trying to save an Afghani Police Officer from drowning in the Helmand River. Here's Tom to tell the story of the worst day of his life, and how he came to find peace after it.

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Here's Tom to tell the rest of the story. What was a lot different about my experience than most was my squad leader. He had been on three deployments to Iraq and actually extended to go on this deployment to Afghanistan with us. And he was one of those people that was just down to his bones. He was a warrior. Like in past lives, that dude was a champion gladiator in Roman coliseums. It was an incredible kind of innate type of thing, like not just like a Mike Tyson capability to knock anybody out because you've got that much fury in you. It was like somebody that just, you tell them the rules of chess once and then they take down Deep Blue. He was just naturally a tactician, could make up extensions to standing tactics that would actually replace standing tactics, and even won a Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal in one of our training ops for the most creative and effective leadership that they'd seen on one of the ranges that every unit in the Marine Corps has to go through before they deploy. He was just a very different type of person, very different warrior, and his mindset was truly about being warriors. You know, like if you messed up or something, yeah, you might get punched in the face, but there wouldn't be any paperwork and there wouldn't be any grudges.

You would dust yourself off, recognize that you just made a big mistake and you don't want to get punched like that again, and you move forward. And on top of that, Reitzman had been through, his first deployment was to Haditha in Iraq in 2006, and that was an extremely bloody battle. Just a lot of Marines were killed. And as a first deployment boot, within I think his first month or two in country, he was a squad leader because his team leader got killed. He assumed the leadership of the team because he just naturally knew what to do.

He was just that type of natural leader. But because he had seen so much death at the hands of really just not being prepared, some units were not ready for the kind of house-to-house warfare that Haditha had to offer because it was still fairly new. We hadn't fought that way very many times, at least not in a very long time. So he had an extremely strong emphasis on our training as room-clearing masters. So there was one of the other condemned barracks. This one was actually barracks rooms and stuff that we snuck away into.

I don't remember exactly how, but we found our way in. And we spent probably two straight weeks in there, just every day going back and using broomsticks as fake guns because we couldn't check them out of the armory for personal one-on-one training. And we spent every day clearing rooms. Other squad leaders might have been giving their guys classes and stuff and giving them some kind of information, but Reitzman was drilling muscle memory that would save us into us just nonstop. He trained us to be the beast squad. Early on he told us during PT one day, we may not be the smartest squad, but by God we're going to be the strongest. And throughout training we proved ourselves repeatedly that we were the strongest, but we were also one of the smartest too. So when we got to Afghanistan, we were there to do the dirtiest missions. That's what we were there for and that's what we had trained to do because just like my mentality of why join the Marines if I'm not going to join the fight, Reitzman's mentality was why go to war if we're not going to go be the best and fight the hardest.

And all of us loved it. He was our Captain Ahab that we were ready to follow into hell. So in May of 2010 we deployed to Helmand, Afghanistan. It's in the southern area of Afghanistan right near the Pakistani border. It's a very rural area and it's very open and desert-like in some areas.

It's a very interesting looking kind of geography. I remember when we first got to one of the bigger bases and stepped off of the cargo plane, I just remember the shock of stepping out into the Afghan air. It's so dry and dusty, but it was so hot. And we went and got on this little bus thing in groups of like eight or ten or however many it could hold with our full packs in our laps and body armor on, weapons strapped across us and everything. I was sitting in this tiny little seat squashed in next to another Marine and the driver cuts on the bus and there's no AC so we're just cooking. And the song that comes on is I Love College by Asher Roth.

If anybody hasn't heard it, the whole song is about partying and just having fun and screwing around in college. And I just remember sitting there thinking, it is May of 2010. Had I stayed in school and followed a four-year program, I would be graduating sometime this month, but instead this is where I'm at, listening to Asher Roth in Afghanistan. Anyway, so we spent a week or two at the bigger base until they had flights and stuff lined up for us to be able to get to our area of operations. When we finally got there, we landed a bigger base near the one that we were going to live on and we had to patrol to our base.

I remember walking down the street just looking around and all the buildings are made out of mud and just thinking it looked like biblical times but with tractors, Toyota Corollas and cell phones added in. And it was just so mind-blowing to look around and I'm sure it was pretty easy to tell that I was new because I'm walking around with my mouth open staring at everything, but also my uniform is nice and clean and stuff. And I remember walking down the road and this little Afghan kid walks up to me and is like, Hey, you new Marine? I'm like, uh, what?

No. He's like, no, you knew. And I was like, how do you, how do you know that I'm new? And he like grabs my sleeve and rubs it between his fingers and kind of then points at the guy next to me and he's filthy.

And he's like, nice clean. And I was like, all right, so, uh, where'd you learn English? And he just immediately pretends that he's holding a radio and says, COG, COG, this post three, I need an MRE. Obviously just copying what he had heard Marine saying on post over and over.

And these kids would just sit at the base of our guys' posts and listen to them talk to each other and over the radio and pick up English from context, which is an incredible feat if you think about it, especially for a little seven, eight-year-old kid. You know, that was really mind blowing kind of thing, just walking in. But yeah, that whole hike, I remember being just tense as I could be. But really one of the most impactful things that happened on that deployment and what's ever happened to me was, uh, Reisman's death. And you've been listening to Tom Morton tell his story about his mentor and the relationship between them, what he learned from him, and by the way, his mentor, three deployments in Iraq down to his bones in his DNA. He was a gladiator.

It was just an innate thing. By the way, Haditha, one of his assignments, his mentor's assignments in Iraq was a really brutal first deployment. His leader had been killed and he ended up just leading his unit because that's what he did. And by the way, room clearing masters is what he was trying to create his mentor in Iraq. And if anybody knows anything about war, this was not Vietnam, it was urban warfare and a whole new skill set was necessary. When we come back, more of the story we pick up where we last left off in Afghanistan.

Tom Morton tells the story of his mentor here on Our American Story. Hi, I'm Kristen Bell. Getting help from my anxiety made me feel like myself again, but we have all sorts of reasons for putting off taking care of ourselves. I thought I could just keep pushing through my depression symptoms.

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Actual charge time varies based on charging unit output, temperature, and other factors. Call 562-314-4603 for complete details. And we're back with our American stories and the story of Tom Morton. When we last left off, Tom had been deployed to the Helmand province of Afghanistan, and things were about to take a nasty turn.

Let's continue with the story. Our platoon was given an order that we were going to send a squad out across the Helmand River to investigate cave systems in the mountains on the other side. Reitzman immediately volunteered us for it, and we loaded down really, really heavy because we were expecting to go into the caves and have a serious fight on our hands.

So we had rockets and everybody had a few extra grenades and a lot of extra ammo. And we left early morning and hiked way out towards the river, and we finally got to the point where we kind of had to cross. And I remember Reitzman openly saying, like, you know, even though your point man usually does anything before anyone else, like he's the point man, he walks out point. And Reitzman told our point man to stay where he was, and he said, like, if anybody's going to drown, it's going to be me. So he went into the river and he actually made it all the way across.

Like it was it was up to about chest height, but in a pretty fast moving river. But anyway, once he made it most of the way across, he told us to start crossing. And like right downriver from me, our interpreter started crossing and one of our Afghan policemen.

And as they were crossing, they lost their footing. And even though Reitzman knew that me and Shaw, our point man, were both strong swimmers, he wasn't going to tell either of us to risk ourselves and go try and grab the interpreter and the Afghan policeman. So he came back into the water from safety and went after them and pretty quickly lost his footing as well. So the rest of us all went in after Reitzman and I was about six feet away from him when he went under.

I wasn't able to find him. He came back up one more time after that and then went back under and he wasn't found for three more days. And the Afghan policeman that he had gone after drowned as well. And I didn't realize until after that he was drowning when I swam past him, because at the time I was focused on getting a Reitzman and our Afghan police would go swimming all the time in the river out in front of our base.

But he drowned as well right next to me. The problem then was, what do we do? So they sent two helicopters to come and pick us up and they were supposed to, you know, one covers the other while one drops down, picks up half the squad and moves us to the opposite side of the river and then comes back for the rest of us. I was in the second group and when they landed to come pick us up, the helicopter broke down and they couldn't get it back off the ground.

They decided to leave. Like the other helicopter dropped and picked up the chopper crew from the one that was dead, but they left us there. So then we were down to six of us on one side of the river, not only like alone, dehydrated and just lost our squad leader, but we were also going to be expected to defend a downed helicopter that the enemy would absolutely love to take over. That was a daunting moment. And I remember there was a moment where the eye in the sky, like the little camera on a giant pole that can see a couple of miles out.

It's called Scan Eagle. They came over the radio and said that Scan Eagle had seen a platoon size element moving towards us on our side of the river and we needed to prepare for a fight. So Staff Sergeant Curtis came around and went man to man because, you know, we were all spread out, like holding a perimeter as best we could and went to each of us. And I remember what he told me was there's a platoon size element coming towards us. If you got any grenades, have them out and ready, have your ammo out in handy, die like a man.

And that's so much to internalize as a 21 year old kid that just watched your mentor die. But I also remember just thinking, all right, fine. They want to do this. I'm ready.

Let's do this. I just remember completely resigning myself to like, OK, I'm going to die, but I'm going to die in a pile of brass. And then about an hour later, we see something on the hilltop and we're like, wow, they're openly exposing themselves.

That's dumb. And it turns out that the platoon size element that they had told us was coming was actually a herd of sheep. And in a crazy way, that was kind of disappointing.

I had completely accepted that I was about to die and it was kind of taken away all of a sudden. They helicoptered out another like a whole platoon to take over our positions and start searching. But, you know, from running out of water for huge chunks of time, we had resorted to drinking the Helmand River.

And it's incredibly infectious. So by the time we made it an hour or so into the hike home, we were essentially combat ineffective at that point. We were so undermanned and just beat up that we weren't capable of defending ourselves if we got attacked. So we stayed put, waiting on another squad to be able to come to us with food and water.

And basically, we were just going to take over the cornfield that we were in. And I remember Staff Sergeant Curtis told me to go and set up on the road and I jumped into this ditch trying to lay on my belly on one side to put my gun on the road and actually be ready to fight. But when I dropped in, my legs caved in caved out from under me and I just dropped to my back. Couldn't bring myself to stand back up and actually lean forward. So I just kind of laid on my back looking around in case I needed to stand up and fight. And this old man came out from the compound that I was sitting in front of and I remember him standing and looking at me for a good 10, 15 seconds before he said anything.

I could tell like he didn't see a foreign warrior coming into his land or anything like he saw a 21 year old kid dying in his lawn. And so he had he asked me like, do you want water? And I said, yes, like, whoa, which is yes. And so he brought me a big like mixing bowl of water from his well. And I probably spilled like three quarters of it on myself trying to drink it just because I was so, so thirsty. I just poured it down my throat and he asked me if I wanted more.

And I said, yes. And he got me three bowls of water. And then I'm pretty sure he went and did the same thing for the other guys elsewhere on his on his property. But he told us that we could stay and that we could use a building on his property if we needed it. And I found out later on that what he actually enacted there was a Muslim tradition called loke war kawal, which basically means once an elder has accepted you into their home by like rule of honor, no one can remove you until the elder says that they can or that you are no longer their guest. And so taking a risk with his entire family, his land, his life, that man said that we were protected on his property until we were capable of leaving. Then we got to go and patrol all the way home after that day.

But that day was by far the worst day of my life. And you've been listening to Tom Morton tell the story of his time served in Afghanistan and also of the howling scene where he watches his mentor guy trying to save the life of one of the de facto members of his squad. And that's an Afghani interpreter. When we come back, more of this remarkable storytelling, a story about war, a story about the U.S. Marine Corps, about brotherhood and mentorship, the story of Tom Morton's time in Afghanistan here on Our American Story. Hi, I'm Kristen Bell. Getting help for my anxiety made me feel like myself again, but we have all sorts of reasons for putting off taking care of ourselves. I thought I could just keep pushing through my depression symptoms.

Let's push through dinner with the in-laws, not life. I don't want medication to change who I am. Understood. But what if it helps you feel like yourself again? I hoped my depression would just go away after a while. Same.

But for me, it was kind of like wishing away my taxes. I've thought about trying medication for my anxiety before, but I don't know where to start. I've got you. Through hers, you can get a prescription 100 percent online if a medical professional determines it's right for you.

And through the hers app, you can message them at any time. There shouldn't be a stigma about taking medication for anxiety. Start your free assessment today at ForHers.com slash care. That's ForHers.com slash C-A-R-E. A podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis from early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care. Every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition and let those living with it know that they are not alone. Listen to untold stories, life with myasthenia gravis on the iHeartRadio app, Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. This spring, Hyundai introduced the all electric IONIQ 6.

It has a range of up to 360 miles and can charge from 10 percent to 80 percent in as little as 18 minutes on a DC ultrafast charger. But are there any drawbacks to the EV lifestyle? Yes, there are. You can unlock and start it with a digital key, which means you'll have to get rid of that giant keychain that holds a special place in your heart. You know, the one with every key in your life since high school. Another one. Cast station beef jerky. I'm talking about the shredded kind. Oh, wait, you can still get that.

Oh, scratch that one. The all electric Hyundai IONIQ 6. When it comes to the minimal drawback electric vehicle lifestyle, we're thinking of every mile. Hyundai, it's your journey. Extremely limited availability. EPA estimated 361 mile range for IONIQ 6 SE long range RWD with fully charged battery. Actual range varies based on trim and other factors.

Actual charge time varies based on charging unit output, temperature and other factors. Call 562-314-4603 for complete details. And we're back with our American stories and the story of Tom Morton. When we last left off, Tom had just experienced the worst day of his life. He lost his mentor and an Afghani police officer to drowning in the Helmand River and ended up exhausted and unable to move properly due to dehydration on the lawn of an Afghani civilian who would render him aid. Let's continue with the story. Something that's always stood out to me about that day, that elder, you know, treating me like a human being and not looking at it is whatever. Screw him. He's he's here to do whatever propaganda that he might have been fed.

Like his humanity trumping danger to him, his family, you know, going against potentially his religious practices or whatever by letting Christians or nonbelievers into his property. So many vets come home just full of hate. You know, you want to place it somewhere. You want to be angry at someone for for losing your friends, for for losing time, for having, you know, physical ailments and nightmares. And stuff you need. You need a scapegoat.

You want someone to put it on. And unfortunately, a lot of times that gets put on the Islamic community as a whole by a lot of veterans. But I've just never been able to do that because I've seen that doesn't matter what religion you are, what race you are.

There's good people in every culture, too. And like I said, as horrible as that day was, that was a very profound experience and lesson for me. Like the day that Reitzman died in the river was by far the worst day of my life. But after that, what I tried to take from it was something I would tell my junior Marines that I was training on the following two deployments was life in the Marine Corps is about setting bars. You know, you have you have a day in boot camp where you get I.T.

for an hour and a half straight. That's the worst day of your life. Then you go to school of infantry and you go on a 15 K. It's actually 24 K. And that's the worst day of your life.

And then you come to the fleet and you spend 24 straight hours scrubbing with Clorox. That's the worst day of your life. But eventually that day will be set so horribly that nothing can bother you anymore. And as unfortunate as it is, one of the most beneficial things I've been able to glean from the horrible day of losing my mentor was the fact that I survived. I can survive something that extreme. And even though it was a very hard thing to deal with, I did make it through. So if I can survive something like that, if I can still be standing and still have some of my brain together some days, what can the civilian world throw at me that I can't deal with? You know, that's that's what I try to keep in mind any time I face some kind of a hardship or whatever. Like I've been through so much worse than this.

I can deal with it. And, you know, the part of that mental toughness is some of it was right's men. Some of it was the Marine Corps as a whole just teaching me, like, you know, sometimes the situation sucks. There's nothing you can do but embrace the suck and push on. I actually left the service in 2014 and I enrolled in school and tried to kind of, you know, just figure things out from there. But it took me a while to kind of get my bearings and went through a few different jobs and been through a lot of different professions over the years. And I moved around a lot like I moved from Denver back to Nashville, where I'm from, then to Savannah, Georgia, then back to Denver.

I think a big, big thing that was kind of a problem for me is it took me a really long time to let go of the Marine Corps and like the guilt of feeling like I can do more. I need to make up for something. I need to need to go back. And, you know, I don't know, the feelings of survivor's guilt, just feeling like I, you know, I should have died that day with Wright's men.

So I need to go back and die with honor so that I can do him right. You know, that that was really nagging at me for a really long time because I never really I didn't get out in my mind for a very long time. Like when I got out, I sought out a motorcycle organization that they're all about.

Like, you know, you have to be a combat veteran to get in. So I rode with them for a long time and I just resigned my patch about six months ago when I realized that I just traded one uniform for another. Like I never let go of any of those things that had happened because I was still reliving it every day because I was acting as though I was still part of it. You know, I still thought about it as though, like, I, you know, I want to stay in shape in case I get a chance to go back.

But not thinking about it from the perspective of I need to stay in shape so that I don't keel over and die in my 40s. And it took a long time for me to finally realize that I had been framing things in a negative way for me, where I was really just leaning into my my survivor's guilt issues and everything instead of trying to grow from them and move forward. But I finally kind of had that aha moment after a motorcycle accident.

And yeah, nearly dying will make you think about stuff. And I benefited a lot from spending time with other veterans to be able to kind of learn from them about how to get through things and stuff. But I also think that the most beneficial part of the recovery from combat and stuff has been finding my own way. You know, like finding something that I really enjoy doing creatively that I want to expand on. And for me, that's been I started out doing carpentry.

I started apprenticing under one of my sister's friends that ended up becoming my best friend. He taught me everything I could ever want to know about building decks, fences, tree houses and stuff. But he also taught me so much more about just oddball little tricks and stuff that things that took him 20 years of being a carpenter to figure out that I got to leap straight into.

You know, he got he had to spend years just doing the same framing wall over and over every day. But, you know, I got to get to the fun stuff with him. And I think spending every day with him and realizing that a combat mindset does not have a very applicable place in the civilian world. You know, like you you really are never going to be facing the same stressors that you are in combat.

So the dark sense of humor and the crassness and the vulgar language and stuff is just their attributes that fit very well. And in a life or death kind of environment, they really don't in most others. And that can feel kind of emptying.

But my friend Ben is the one that taught me that like there are other places that that can fit in. You know, there are other things for me and there is stuff that I can I can do and feel passionate about. And like, you know, I really genuinely enjoy building stuff like it. It's enormously gratifying to be able to leave from from a day of work. And, you know, even if you're not done just looking back like, hey, this morning there was nothing.

Now there's the framework for a deck. It's very, very fulfilling. And it's a very gratifying puzzle to work out.

You know, every job is different. Every everything needs a little thought, a little caution. And I think that's helped me calm down enormously.

And unfortunately, he he passed away about a month ago. So that's been really hard for me. But overall, you know, like learning to be creative and working with my hands has been a huge therapeutic tool for me, because just learning carpentry got me confident enough with tools to start doing stuff like working on my own bike. And, you know, being confident enough to to realize, like, well, if I take it apart and I can't figure it out, all I have to do is just retrace my steps and put it back together. Worse that can happen is don't work right.

And then I try again. And that led me into working on motorcycles or my motorcycles. And I'm actually working towards eventually I want to own my own custom motorcycle shop and build custom bikes, bikes for people that need special accommodations. Like I'd I'd love to build like, you know, a specially outfitted bike for a veteran that lost their legs or something so that they can still ride. I just think that'd be something that would be really gratifying to to present it to the veteran. But also it'd be really I'm I would be excited about the challenge of making a bike work without two of your limbs involved, because they kind of need all four on a standard setup. You know, that's my my long term dream, because it really has brought me so much peace, just playing some calm, like melodic music in the garage and just sit there and wrench and work out a giant puzzle all day.

Even if it means throwing a wrench or two throughout the day, like, it's still so awesome to be able to have something at the end that is like, wow, I did that. And a great job, as always, by Monty on the production of that piece and the storytelling and a special thanks to Tom Morton, who shared stories about not one, but in the end, two mentors, because he had not just Sergeant Joe Reitzman to thank for so much. Sergeant Reitzman was his mentor and the man he watched drown in the Helmand River, but also Ben, his mentor, who taught him about peace in civilian life and, well, just the peace that can come from being a great craftsman and putting things together, first as a carpenter's apprentice and now ultimately as a mechanic on motorcycles, hoping to create a motorcycle that can do some good for former vets.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-11 04:21:08 / 2023-07-11 04:36:01 / 15

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