Welcome home, Nathan

Local marine injured in Iraq returns home on furlough

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   BLOUNTVILLE -- Wearing sunglasses, a black shirt and a broad smile, Marine Lance Cpl. Nathan Morrow walked into the arms of family and friends Saturday afternoon less than one month after a homemade bomb that exploded near his military vehicle in rural Iraq nearly cost him his life.
   Morrow's parents, Lee and Lisa Morrow of Elizabethton, along with dozens of family, friends and well-wishers, greeted the Marine who returned home at Tri-Cities Regional Airport Saturday morning on a two-week furlough.
   "I'm extremely happy to see everybody," said Nathan, a member of Lima Company in the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, based in Gray that deployed to Iraq in March. He was injured when an explosive device detonated near the Humvee he was riding in on March 13.
   Nathan was the head gunman on the first Humvee leading a convoy of Army and Marine vehicles when a homemade bomb buried underground exploded to the right of his vehicle. When he turned to see where the blast came from, another bomb struck to the left side of him spraying shrapnel into his face.
   "It felt like a slap, like it was pushing me to the right," recalled Morrow of the blast. He was pulled from the Humvee and treated by medics. Morrow remained conscious and in tremendous pain. Lee said the doctors treating his son said if he had not been wearing his body armor, he would not be alive.
   "I knew what happened," Nathan said. "It was an improvised explosive device, an IED, which is a roadside bomb."
   Nathan suffered injuries to his head, neck, face, arm, ears, eyes, and his upper body. He is deaf in his left ear and is experiencing impaired vision related to shrapnel in his left eye. He received a medical evacuation to Kuwait City.
   Lisa received a telephone call informing her that Nathan was alive but had been injured. She and her husband were told Nathan was in surgery and that they would be contacted at 6 a.m. the following morning.
   "We didn't know if they meant Baghdad morning or American morning," said Lee. "We were going (crazy)."
   When a telephone call finally came, it was from Nathan himself. He was transported from Kuwait City to Ramstein Base in Germany for treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and later returned to Camp Pendleton, Calif. Lisa flew to California last week to see her son for the first time since his return.
   "I learned a little more about his injuries at that time," said Lisa, a 6th-grade teacher at Hampton Elementary School. "They didn't tell me everything at first."
   A Marine infantry company, Lima Company departed out of Gray on Jan. 14 to Camp Pendleton for training before leaving for Iraq on Feb. 20. The last time Lima Company was called to active duty was during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
   The nation was rocked last week after five U.S. soldiers and four civilians contracted to provide security were killed in separate ambush attacks by anti-American forces in the so-called Sunni Triangle near Fallujah. Iraqis dismembered the bodies and hung them from a bridge. The deadly attacks marked one of the greatest single-day losses of life for Americans since the war began on March 17, 2003.
   More than 598 Americans had been killed in Iraq through Saturday since the war began over one year ago. Of that number, 461 casualties have occurred since President Bush declared an end to hostilities on May 1, 2003.
   Despite the opposition to the war on the political and cultural fronts, Lee said Nathan's service had only strengthened his support of the war.
   "My blood is in that sand over there," said Lee. "We are not dodging shrapnel right now because we are protected by those people who volunteered."
   Nathan graduated from Elizabethton High School in 2000 and enrolled in the Marines shortly thereafter. He is a junior at East Tennessee State University. Nathan entered the Marines to become a pilot but now is studying to become a youth minister.
   Although only in Iraq for a few days, Nathan said he did get to experience a front-line perspective of the war known to most Americans only through news networks. He said Lima Company spent most of its time in the country's rural and suburban areas where "Most of the kids have no shoes, they're left alone," he said. "They seem happy to see us."
   He also disputed the notion that the majority of Iraqis were participating in attacks on U.S. forces. He said loyalists of Saddam Hussein remained a real presence in the country, but did not constitute the majority of Iraqi culture.
   "A lot of people want to blame every single Iraqi," said Nathan of the terrorist attacks. "The majority of Iraqis are good people. The loyalists don't understand why we are there because they have had to live in fear for so long, which is why they followed Saddam Hussein in the first place."
   Nathan will return to Camp Pendleton after his two-week furlough where he expects to live for the remainder of his active duty service. Nathan is scheduled to undergo surgery on his eye which will hopefully restore his vision in that eye. His mother stated that he may undergo a cornea transplant.
   Nathan said he planned to spend furlough with his family, his sisters, Lindsey, and Lydia as well as a host of friends. He said he has no regrets about his decision to become a Marine, and still longs to be with his unit.
   "My Marines are still over there," he said.
   Among those greeting Nathan was Jennifer Walker, of Kingsport, whose husband Lance Cpl. David Walker serves with him in Lima Company. Walker said she relied on her religious faith and camaraderie with other military families who have relatives overseas.
   "It's been lot of prayers and strong support of the families," said Walker, who held a banner reading "Thank You Nathan!"
   Lee is the strength and conditioning coach for athletics at East Tennessee State University. Friends and former ETSU football players coached by Lee were also on hand to see Nathan and pay respect to their former coach. Former ETSU player and Science Hill standout Matt Wiljelm recalled a teenage Nathan coming to train in the Bucs' weight room. Wilhjelm said the players noted Nathan's commitment to serve his country even as a high school student.
   "It is as American as it can possibly get," said former Buccaneer Scott Carter of Nathan's reunion. "I'd have bought a ticket to be here today."
   Also among those at the airport to welcome Morrow home was Rebecca Williamson, wife of Sgt. Jeremy Williamson, 27, of Knoxville, who was injured in the same blast as Nathan but, according to information released by the United States Marine Corps, was one of the first to come to the aid of Nathan.
   Since recovering from his injuries, Jeremy has returned to active duty and was awarded the Purple Heart on April 1. Nathan is also scheduled to be awarded the Purple Heart.