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Military path leads Morgan to medical career

Staff Photo: John Bohn Jeff Morgan, a Brookwood graduate and an intern at Sports Medicine South, is a recent graduate of Georgia State. Morgan is interested in becoming a physician assistant in the fields of orthopedics or trauma medicine. Morgan is well versed in trauma treatment and physical therapy through his personal experiences while recovering from wounds he suffered while serving as a United States Marine.
 Staff Photo: John Bohn Jeff Morgan, left, a Brookwood graduate and an intern at Sports Medicine South, is a recent graduate of Georgia State. Morgan instructs Missy Wetherigton, right, in the proper form of a lunge as part of Wetherington's recovery from knee surgery that she had done by Dr. Gary Levengood of Sports Medicine South where Wetherington is both a patient and an employee. Morgan is interested in becoming a physician assistant in the fields of orthopedics or trauma medicine. Morgan is well versed in trauma treatment and physical therapy through his personal experiences while recovering from wounds he suffered while serving as a United States Marine. 

Staff Photo: John Bohn Jeff Morgan, a Brookwood graduate and an intern at Sports Medicine South, is a recent graduate of Georgia State. Morgan is interested in becoming a physician assistant in the fields of orthopedics or trauma medicine. Morgan is well versed in trauma treatment and physical therapy through his personal experiences while recovering from wounds he suffered while serving as a United States Marine. Staff Photo: John Bohn Jeff Morgan, left, a Brookwood graduate and an intern at Sports Medicine South, is a recent graduate of Georgia State. Morgan instructs Missy Wetherigton, right, in the proper form of a lunge as part of Wetherington's recovery from knee surgery that she had done by Dr. Gary Levengood of Sports Medicine South where Wetherington is both a patient and an employee. Morgan is interested in becoming a physician assistant in the fields of orthopedics or trauma medicine. Morgan is well versed in trauma treatment and physical therapy through his personal experiences while recovering from wounds he suffered while serving as a United States Marine. 

Most of the physical therapy patients Jeff Morgan works with daily have no idea about his past injuries.

They're working on their own health problems, whether it's a high-schooler recovering from a knee injury or an adult with a repaired shoulder.

The damage to the 29-year-old Morgan's right ear is internal, a complete hearing loss that is unnoticeable to the people he encounters. His artificial right eye, a tribute to its realistic design, doesn't always get anyone's attention.

The long vertical scar on his neck, even partially hidden by a collared shirt, is tougher to hide, not that he tries. A few brave souls ask him what happened, allowing the former Marine time to tell about how his second tour in Iraq ended when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded six feet from him and caused irreversible damage.

"I have no problem talking about it," said the 2000 Brookwood grad, an intern at Sports Medicine South in Lawrenceville. "I think people are sometimes afraid to ask about it. But I have no problems talking about it. I've talked about it so much that I think I've dealt with it better than some other people with injuries have."

That Morgan is even working with physical therapy patients is a miracle in itself.

The roadside bomb did heavy damage to his upper body, but it could have been much worse if not for his close friend, Marine corporal Gary Koehler, who absorbed the bulk of the IED blast. Koehler died from that brutal explosion in Haditha, just after midnight on Nov. 1, 2006.

A tattoo on his ribcage features that date and Koehler's name, and he stays in touch frequently with the Ypsilanti, Mich., native's family. He and his fellow Marines go to Koehler's Arlington Cemetery grave yearly to remember him.

"(Koehler) was so close to me that he shielded me from a lot of it, so I'm probably standing here today because he was next to me," Morgan said. "We were just good friends. When you go through a lot of the things we went through, you become a lot closer. The camaraderie is amazing. We were just good friends. We're all real close. He was a great guy. I miss him."

Morgan, touched so closely by years of witnessing war injuries, has changed his own life goals with an eye on helping others heal.A military pathA solid two-way player at Brookwood, Morgan had goals of playing college football until a horrible car accident (his mother perished in the crash) and broken femur derailed those plans. He still has a rod in his leg from the post-wreck surgery.

He instead went to Georgia Southern as a regular student, but was prompted to join the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We're extremely proud of Jeff," Brookwood assistant football coach Tom Jones said. "He's always been a very patriotic guy and 9-11 happened and he went and signed up. We obviously owe a great debt of gratitude to him and people like him.

"He was always a hard-working kid in high school. I had him for weight training. He was a tough player, a good player. He always played hard and he was a real good team player."

Morgan originally went through Navy SEAL training, graduating atop his boot camp class, but fell just short on a swimming test that eventually led him to the Marines. A 14-week medical course helped with his new path, helping him earn two Navy and Marines Corps Achievement Medals in June and September 2004 in his first Iraq deployment with a group that specialized in bomb detonation. Both of the medals were for administering medical treatment to fellow soldiers after his unit took heavy fire.

He also took part in the famous U.S. takeover of Fallujah before he joined the legendary First Battalion, Eighth Marines, the Camp Lejeune-based group known as , and became a sniper.

"I wasn't a hunter. I had never shot a gun before. Isn't that weird?" Morgan said. "It was just kind of natural for me to aim and shoot. There's more to it obviously. But the mechanics of shooting weren't difficult for me. A lot of people have trouble with breathing control and trigger control, trying to figure out range information, how far away a target is. But for some reason, it came easy to me."

He spent three years on a variety of sniper missions, ranging from covering ships passing through the Suez Canal to tracking down insurgent targets in the Middle East. He also helped train snipers in Jordan and Pakistan, and regularly made his way through dangerous urban missions in Iraq.The IED attackOne of those missions came on Halloween night in 2006, when Morgan and his fellow Marines were summoned from Pakistan to Haditha, Iraq, for an anti-sniper objective.

The sniper they trailed -- who had killed nine Marines with single-shot, head shots -- turned out to be a 6-foot-6, red-headed Chechnyan who operated by shooting from inside closed car trunks before the car drove away.

The Marines tailed the enemy sniper in a cat-and-mouse game, eventually getting their guy. But it wasn't without loss, as Morgan was severely injured and his good friend was killed.

The two were the point men of a six-sniper tandem, working out front with two pairs of Marines behind them, each group separated by 20 yards. Morgan and Koehler met in the center of the road to discuss which direction to walk, then began splitting off to their positions, Morgan on the left side of the road and Koehler on the right.

They didn't make it back before the IED was detonated.

"It went off and everything went white, the loudest thing I've ever heard in my life," Morgan said. "The only thing I remember after that is waking up. I don't know if it was five seconds later, a minute later. I imagine it was 30 seconds to a minute. I still had my earpiece in so I could hear my team leader calling our names. My helmet was gone and it was like my brain rebooted.

"I'm laying on the left side on the ground, thinking, 'Why am I laying on the ground? Oh, I think I just got hit. I got hit by an IED.' Then you try and figure out, 'Are my feet there? Are my legs there? Are my legs bleeding? Are my arms bleeding?' I couldn't see anything. This (right) eye was half hanging out and this (left) one was swollen shut. My lips were all huge. My neck was bleeding pretty bad. That was the only thing I was kind of worried about."

Morgan was dragged to a driveway between two walls by his team leader and radio operator, who began bandaging up the injured Marine. Morgan was the team's medic, repeatedly telling his friends not to administer morphine, as is protocol with massive hemorrhaging and head trauma, of which he had both.

The Marines took Morgan to a nearby soccer field, but the helicopter couldn't land because the soldiers were under heavy fire. They took him inside of a building for nearly an hour before he was airlifted to Balad, where he underwent procedures to clean out shrapnel and remove his eye.

He received additional treatment in Baghdad, spent two more weeks in Germany and eventually came back to Bethesda, Md., by Christmas in 2006.

He spent a few weeks in a wheelchair because the ear damage threw off his equilibrium and it was a major adjustment to seeing out of only one eye. But he got through it and even played a season of semi-pro football as an outside linebacker for the Georgia Generals.

"He's really persevered over a lot of adversity and we're all proud of him," Brookwood assistant football coach David Nelson said. "He's exactly the same as he was in high school. He played hurt when he was hurt. He's always been a tough kid."A new pathFollow-up medical appointments kept Morgan busy for months after his injury, so he began attending classes at Georgia Perimeter College to work toward restarting his college education.

He transferred to Georgia State, where he recently completed his kinesiology degree. He will graduate in December after his internship finishes up at Sports Medicine South.

He initially planned to be a strength and conditioning coach, but has shifted his plans to incorporate more of his medical background in the military. He plans to attend physician's assistant school -- he needs courses in chemistry and biology in 2012 to prepare for it -- and work in either trauma or orthopaedics.

"I've got a lot of school left, but it will be worth it," Morgan said.

The Atlanta resident is hopeful of healing others, as he's clearly done himself. His physical scars aren't matched by heavy emotional ones, which he attributes to talking openly with his friends about his war experiences.

He doesn't regret his military choice at all, instead he misses it. He wishes he could return, but his sniper duties are too tough with the loss of his shooting eye.

He also lost a good friend in Iraq, though he knows he was lost fighting for a noble cause.

"I know everyone that's over there, myself included, wanted to be there," Morgan said. "Most all of us, anybody I worked with, joined to go over there. We feel pretty good about what we're doing. We see the difference that it's making. It doesn't get reported, so a lot of people don't really know.

"A lot of cities now are free of insurgents and fighters. They do have schools. They do have running water. Little things we don't have to think about. An all-around working system. There were a lot of days we were able to go in and give them that opportunity."