Wendell Morris will never forget the day of Sept. 11, 2001. It’s been 20 years, but like many Americans, especially soldiers, he can tell you exactly where he was and what he was thinking on that day.
Morris was at Raceland-Worthington High School where he taught technology education classes for 31 years and coached multiple sports over the years. Morris was already a Kentucky guardsman with the 201st Combat Engineer Battalion out of Ashland. He entered the U.S. Army National Guard in 1983.
Morris was working with his second-period class at Raceland when he received a call from Staff Sergeant George Qualls, who worked at the armory at the time, said Morris. He asked if Morris was watching the television and urged him to turn it on. At this point in time, Morris had achieved the rank of Sergeant Major.
“So I turned it on, there it was,” said Morris. “The first plane had already hit the tower and I don’t think the one in Pennsylvania had hit yet, but I know the first plane had already hit.”
Morris knew immediately what was happening, and what was coming. However, nothing was taking his attention away from the news.
Morris was “glued to the television all day and on the phone back and forth to the armory several times,” he said. “As fate would have it, I think we had drill that weekend.”
Morris said the mentality of guardsmen changed.
“We knew we were going to be deployed at some point,” said Morris. “Your training mindset changed, the training events changed. You’re probably not going to be building roads anymore. It’s a lot more, it’s a lot more to it than that.”
When the unit was at drills the weekend following the attacks, Morris said, “things got more real faster, ’cause nobody would say it, but everybody knew what was coming. We were going somewhere.”
As Morris watched the events unfold, it was very apparent to him who was behind the attacks and the reason.
“Definitely deliberate,” he said. “With everything else that had happened in the last six or eight years prior to that … it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who was behind it.”
Morris’ deployment overseas was imminent. Since 1983 when he entered the guard, he had deployed on state and federal missions within the country, but not yet overseas. Morris deployed to work on the southern border twice, responded to Hurricane Katrina and did training at Fort Owen in the Mojave Desert, among other missions.
The 201st Engineer Battalion is a Kentucky Army National Guard Unit made up of soldiers from Ashland, where it is headquartered along with companies from Olive Hill, Cynthiana and Prestonsburg. The National Guard is traditionally known for “two weeks a year, one weekend a month” training.
“The guard is very much different from regular army in the fact that … you could very well go to war with your next door neighbor, someone you’ve gone to church with, whatever,” said Morris. “That’s a very real possibility. Your father, your brother, your family members, so it’s a lot different.”
‘Are you ready?’
Being a teacher as well as a guardsman put Morris in a unique position the day of Sept. 11, 2001. He can recall the moment Adam Tallent, a senior who just completed basic training over the summer, walked into his class.
“I can’t remember exactly what was said,” he recalled. “I was sitting there glued to the television. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned around and we just made eye contact and it just like yep, OK, are you ready? That kind of look. I don’t remember what we said, but I remember that look.”
Tallent previously described the moment to The Daily Independent, in which he recalled leaving his class to go find Morris, who was his Sergeant Major. Tallent said he thought they would need to report immediately, and Morris reassured him, no action would need to be taken. Orders would come.
Those orders didn’t come immediately. Both finished the school year. Tallent graduated, along with at least eight others who joined the guard around that year. Some had joined prior to the attacks, like Tallent, others because of the attacks.
The guardsmen continued to train together with what Morris called a “deployment mentality.” The unit received a stateside mission in 2003 for Operation Noble Eagle, in which they provided base security.
The mission lasted about two years, Tallent recalled. The unit wouldn’t be called on again until 2008. During the winter, around 500 soldiers in the 201st were deployed to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, for training.
The unit left stateside for Afghanistan in May 2008. All but one would return home in March 2009.
During those 10 months in Afghanistan, the unit conducted route reconnaissance and area clearance operations as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“During that time, I don’t know how many IEDs we cleared,” recalled Morris. “We had one group that stayed at Bagram, that all they did was clear Russian mine fields. That’s all they did the whole time we were there, they were clearing mines. That’s how many mines the Russians had left.”
The unit was recognized at a University of Kentucky Basketball game in December 2011 by then-Governor Steve Beshear, Adjutant General Edward W. Tonini and the unit’s commanding officer Lt. Col. Michael Ferguson during halftime. The battalion was awarded the Valorous Unit Award.
The 201st Engineer Battalion was nicknamed the “Workhorse Battalion” and operated eight route-clearing platoons in the eastern region of Afghanistan, covering nine different provinces, hundreds of acres and thousands of square meters of land.
The unit performed over 1,100 missions, confiscated and detonated 335 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), cleared approximately 216,000 land mines. The unit was involved in 8 direct-fire engagements and 45 indirect-fire engagements with enemy forces, according to the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Michael Ferguson in 2011.
“We had groups on the road every day,” said Morris. “We had groups encountering IEDs every day, encountering the bad guys every day … so it was a tough 10 months, a hard 10 months. Regretfully we lost two soldiers.”
Sgt. Daniel Wallace, of Dry Ridge, who was 27, “was killed when his platoon came under small-arms fire from Taliban forces during a route-clearing mission,” The Daily Independent reported in 2009. “Also Sgt. Jonnie Stiles, an Oklahoma native who was part of a Louisiana-based National Guard unit was killed when a suicide bomber attacked his convoy.”
The Louisiana unit was assigned to the 201st, and worked alongside the guardsmen from eastern Kentucky, Morris said.
Honored for service
The unit was awarded 54 purple hearts, 342 Army commendation medals, 110 Bronze Stars, 21 Star Medals with the Valor Designation and three Silver Stars for its service in Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Ferguson during the UK halftime honor described the unit’s function as “the tip of the spear” and the soldiers faced head-on “what everyone else on the battlefield wanted to avoid at all costs.”
“Ferguson said he was confident the unit’s explosives-sweeping efforts prevented thousands of military personnel and civilians from being maimed or killed,” states an article published by The Daily Independent in 2011.
“Nothing moved on the ground in this part of Afghanistan until the 201st got the call to take the point and clear the route,” said Ferguson at the halftime recognition.
“Our deployment was to do route clearance, which basically meant we went in front of all other convoys looking for and clearing IEDs, that was our mission,” Morris explained. “Did it very well. Again, I’ll take this bunch from eastern Kentucky any day over active duty army, active duty units. A lot of active duty units, I won’t mention who, they would not leave the gate unless we were in front of them. That’s how much they depended on us. And it was units who throughout my career I would always look up to. But I was looking up to the wrong ones. I should have been looking up to my own kids.”
Those kids are Morris’ soldiers, especially those he also had in class while teaching at Raceland.
“Nine of my soldiers I had as students,” said Morris about the unit he deployed with to Afghanistan.
While in the 201st, Morris worked alongside “a lot of good men” on state and federal orders, but those from Raceland, like Tallent, are particularly special to Morris.
“I always had a special interest in their missions, and where they were at and what was going on,” he said of the former students. “If I knew they were hurting, I hurt. Kind of the old cliche, we’re family, but we really are. I mean, even to this day, try to keep up with them, I reach out to them and with the events happening this past week, this couple weeks, I reached out to a lot of them.”
As the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, many soldiers who deployed there are left to deal with a variety of emotions. Morris has reached out to those he deployed with, including some of the Raceland students to see how they are doing as events unfold.
“We got a myriad of emotions, mixed feelings, anywhere from mad and upset to hurt, feel betrayed almost … but we’re doing OK, the ones I’ve talked to, they’re doing OK.”
Morris said he recently saw a post on social media “that made a lot of sense, that don’t happen very often on Facebook.”
He couldn’t recall the exact wording, but the post essentially said:
“If you served in Afghanistan, you can be proud of the fact that you did your job, you took care of your people, and America is very proud of you and we thank you for your service, the rest is just politics,” said Morris, adding that “soldiers and politics don’t mix.”
“We all feel pretty much the same, but it is what it is,” Morris said. “I’m very proud of them boys, very proud of them.”
The mental impact a deployment can have on a soldier is beyond significant.
Morris recalled the two men the unit and associated unit lost while in Afghanistan, but those were not the only soldiers lost to the war.
“As with many deployments, we lost even more soldiers after we got home,” said Morris. “We still lost them, they were still my kids. Whether it was over there or over here, we still lost them.”
Morris said the military didn’t do a good job training soldiers to come home. Soldiers are at the highest level of alertness at al times while deployed, then when they land back at home, they are expected to deescalate quickly.
“And America expects you to just do that, but it’s not that simple, and some people can deescalate quicker than others,” Morris said. “Some people it takes years, some people don’t ever deescalate.”
Morris shared that, in his opinion, struggling soldiers are looking to fill a void when they come home. They may try alcohol, drugs, failed marriages or other things.
“The best advice I can give is … you gotta do some soul-searching,” said Morris. “If you’re not regularly attending a church, you need to find one because that is the only thing that’s going to fill that void. Alcohol don’t do it, I mean, tried it. It don’t work. Drugs don’t do it. That’s not the answer. Failed marriages, not it, you know, the only thing you’re going to do is wake up and you’re still unhappy, still looking.”
Morris hopes that after almost 20 years of soldiers being deployed, the military is helping train soldiers to come home and give them the proper help.
“We were very well-trained to go over there, and we did it better than most. But they didn’t train us to come home at all,” he said. “Everybody is so anxious to get home, but they weren’t prepared for what home was like once they got home.”
Morris recalled the three days at Fort McCoy undergoing psych evaluations and other duties as they demobilized.
“It’s not something you get over very easy. I mean, I talked to a lot of Vietnam veterans, one-on-one about it,” Morris shared. “They said they still have issues. I was hoping they could tell me a magic secret you know, but you just got to learn to live with it, accept it, and go on. And like I said, it’s not your fault, it’s not the soldier’s fault. Soldier did what he was supposed to do.”
He has been reaching out to the soldiers he served with as the current events surrounding Afghanistan make things difficult for those who deployed to the country.
“Even though I'm retired and a lot of those are no longer in the military, I still look at them as my kids. Always did, always will, I guess. That’s just me,” he said.
He holds his unit in high regard. While Morris said those from Raceland weren’t necessarily the best students while in class, they were his best, and there’s “nobody I’d rather be with than them,” he said. “Nobody.”
“People can brag about the 82nd airborne and all this all they want, I’ll take that bunch from Raceland any day, any day. What they did over there and their record, that proved it.”
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