The hidden wounds of war

Iraq war veteran Colin Morrison, 28, of Phoenix, served two tours of duty with the Marines during the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. Originally from Paso Robles, Morrison now lives in Phoenix where he attends the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute and like so many of his fellow vets, struggles with finding his place in post-war society.
Iraq war veteran Colin Morrison, 28, of Phoenix, served two tours of duty with the Marines during the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. Originally from Paso Robles, Morrison now lives in Phoenix where he attends the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute and like so many of his fellow vets, struggles with finding his place in post-war society.

Editor's note: Colin Morrison told The Tribune he had been shot by the enemy. But after comments on the newspaper’s website questioned that story, and The Tribune asked Morrison about the allegations, he recanted his original version of events and said he had shot himself by accident. Morrison was honorably discharged with the rank of private first class, well below the rank of lance corporal he once achieved, according to the Marine Corps. Morrison said there was an investigation and pending court-martial regarding the shooting incident, but both were dropped, he said, because there was no evidence to indicate he shot himself on purpose. The Marines declined to discuss Morrison’s version of events. A spokesman said, however, that Morrison did not receive a Purple Heart, which goes to veterans who are injured, directly or indirectly, by the enemy.

The chorus of 54 howitzers filled the desert night air with man-made thunder: propulsive booms followed by radiating crackle. The ground rumbled underfoot as each artillery report shook everything around it, hurling shells toward a tiny blip on the desert landscape 18 miles across the Iraqi border.

Distant Safwan Hill, believed to be an Iraqi military listening post, was being blown to bits.

The date was March 21, 2003 — just weeks before Saddam Hussein was toppled from power. Lance Cpl. Colin Morrison and his unit, India Battery, 3rd Battalion of the 11th Marines, were softening up enemy targets to the north along with a huge invasion force massing on the border. Feet from the roaring cannon, Morrison was calculating target positions.

“It was pretty amazing,” he recalled.

Less than a year out of Paso Robles High School, Morrison, a good-looking young man with a cheerful smile, had just turned 20.

In the push north to Baghdad, the days passed with work, guard duty, sleep, fear — and fighting. When not worrying about the enemy, Morrison and other Marines faced the elements — mountainous sandstorms so thick he could barely see his hands.

By May 3, his unit was shipped home, where he and his fellow Marines prepared for their next deployment. Less than a year later, he was back in Iraq.

Mudaysis Airbase, where he spent his second tour, was a dusty, isolated post in Al Anbar province southeast of Baghdad that looked out upon a flat desert of rocky soil and dry riverbeds.

Morrison and his unit spent most of their time patrolling the Saudi Arabian border and working on infrastructure projects in the small hamlets near the base. For 79 days he lived this routine. Then one early morning his war came to an end.

At 4 a.m. on April 12, 2004, as he was pulling himself up the side of a bunker, he fell 8 feet to the ground. Someone said he’d been shot.

“I didn’t believe him,’’ Morrison recalled, but there was the hole in his left boot. Later he would learn that the bullet had torn off his left pinkie toe.

In less than 24 hours, Morrison was in California. It was as if he’d clicked his heels together and returned from Oz. His leg wound healed, but not enough for him to re-enlist. He was honorably discharged in July 2005. His Marine Corps career was over.

Today, Morrison acknowledges that he is luckier than many of the 30,000 veterans who have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001. Still, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and his readjustment to civilian life hasn’t come easily.

“He enjoyed his first deployment,” said Morrison’s grandmother, Carol Morrison, whom he lived with for much of his time in high school and whom he calls mom. “I think it was more the second tour that affected him.”

The war had a way of keeping a hold on him. He may have been home, but the stress of knowing that he could have died at any moment, or the guilt of knowing that he survived while others did not, lingered.

Colin Morrison would walk down suburban streets on guard, run for his life when he heard loud bangs, and generally lose much of his earlier sense of well-being.

Morrison is just one of San Luis Obispo County’s 358 veterans who have returned home and are still listed on disability for their wounds — suffering from hearing loss to missing limbs to brain trauma.

Besides his leg wound, Morrison has a near constant ringing in his ears — a common vet injury.

“I hear a continuous high frequency tone that is always there,” he said. “It’s pretty much there 24 hours a day.”

Yet the leg wound and tinnitus turned out to be the least of his worries.

As someone who grew up in a military family and had planned to make a career of the Corps, he found it difficult to leave the Marines. The pride of membership and camaraderie was gone.

“I blew stuff up for a living. That’s not something that translates to the civilian sector,” he said.

Soon after his discharge, Morrison and his family noticed changes in his personality. He didn’t return phone calls, and didn’t go home every weekend like he used to. He stayed in bed some days. He had nightmares. He was depressed.

“He was very quiet and withdrawn,” said Carol Morrison of that time. “A lot of wounds don’t show, but they are there.”

Readjusting to civilian life without the distraction of training and readying for duty did not come easily. He was hypervigilant, scanning every room, every group of people for danger. It was as if he was looking for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or enemy snipers. He’d tell himself, “I’m in California. I’m not in a war zone.” But the survival instincts honed in Iraq died hard. Every time he smelled diesel fuel, it would remind him of Iraq.

Some time after moving back to the Central Coast, Morrison and his grandmother went for a walk on the boardwalk in Pismo Beach. Firecrackers or a cap gun went off, and Morrison just started running.

“He took off down that beach like a streak of lighting,” his grandmother said. “I called. ‘Colin, Colin. Wait.’ ”

But he just kept running. When she found him crouched in a corner at his house, he was as pale as a ghost.

“I said, ‘Colin you’re home, you’re safe.’ I don’t think he even remembers that happening. “To this day, anytime we go in a restaurant, he will not sit with his back to the door,” said his grandmother. “He always wants to face the door.”

These are classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, which Morrison has been diagnosed with. Morrison said his PTSD wasn’t sparked by one horrific incident; rather, he thinks, it came from dealing with the potential of death at every turn.

“There wasn’t really anything, just the fact that 24 hours a day, every day, you had to come to terms with the fact that you could die any minute.”

Then there was the guilt of survival. Soon after he got home, two of his buddies were killed in Iraq.

“It just made me feel like crap. I got a bullet in my left leg and didn’t do anything,” he said.

His grandmother said he told her about it.

“He said, ‘Mom, I just feel so bad it was him. Why was I saved?’ ”

“It wasn’t your time,” she said.

For Morrison, one of the hardest parts of returning was that hardly anyone could understand what he’d been through. Even the counselor at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a noncombat veteran, did not get it, Morrison thought. The military did little to help Marines deal with what had happened to them, he said.

“I didn’t know how to talk about what I had gone through. I didn’t know who I could talk to about it.”

What helped most, Morrison said, was talking with veterans such as John Bria, whom Morrison lived with soon after returning from his second tour. Bria served in the Marines in the 2003 invasion.

Morrison, 28, now lives in Phoenix and is slated to graduate in December from the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. He plans to move back to California with his girlfriend in hopes of finding a job. He still occasionally gets together with veterans to talk. But mostly he calls a Marine buddy living in the area if he needs to talk.

More than five years since his discharge, Morrison is finally getting back to some kind of normal life.

“He has just been a better version of himself, a version I remember when we were in high school,” said Bria, a San Luis Obispo High graduate who met Morrison when they were teenagers.

Still, Morrison would return to the Marine Corps.

“He says he’d go back in a minute if he was ordered to,” Carol Morrison said. “If they would let him.”

Injured veterans in San Luis Obispo County

The nearly decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made their bloody mark on San Luis Obispo County: While few from here have been killed — three of the state’s 475 casualties came from this county — that does not mean the Central Coast has gone unscathed.

Much of the toll on local veterans has gone unseen.

Hundreds of San Luis Obispo County vets live daily with their physical and psychological wounds.

According to a McClatchy Newspapers database, 358 local Afghanistan and Iraq war vets are being treated by the Veterans Administration.

The data reveal not only the myriad types of wounds that can be inflicted in war — tinnitus (ringing in the ears), amputations, post-traumatic stress disorder — but also where most of these veterans live.

While wounded vets can be found across the county from Shandon to Nipomo, most are from Paso Robles. Eighty-six vets from Paso Robles are on the VA rolls, 17 more than in San Luis Obispo, the largest city in the county. Paso Robles also tops the list when it comes to vets with specific injuries.

Injured Veterans in SLO County