Vietnam War vet fights on — and keeps learning
“Oftentimes, I fear going to sleep because of my flashback nightmares. Other times, I feel like I have a fairly normal life. But, of course, normal for me is a couple standard deviations away from the norm.” — Ralph Morgan
By Jeannette Cruz
GCU News Bureau
Ralph Morgan was 19 years old when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War — an era when the country was deeply divided about the military and war veterans often were treated with disdain.
The Saline, Mich., resident, now a doctoral student at Grand Canyon University, had just graduated from high school and was starting a life for himself in Albuquerque, N.M. He was a college student and engaged to be married. Being called to serve meant leaving all of that behind.
“It was absolute fear,” remembered Dan Carroll, a childhood pal of Morgan. “A number of our friends had been killed while we were still in school and before we even graduated. We were just kids, and that was part of growing up at the time.”
During Morgan’s yearlong tour of Vietnam as a member of the Fifth Special Forces group, the Green Beret experienced heat, injuries, blood and horror — an experience, he said, that profoundly affected his identity and life after war.
“The war was a topic of every conversation we had,” Carroll said. “At one point it became unpleasant, and I knew he had to be troubled by all of this because he shared with me stories about the battlefield, death and how someone had saved his life and carried him out of the jungle.”
No matter whether they felt proud of their service or sustained war injuries, the soldiers often found hatred, not love, when they returned. Morgan’s fiancée, for example, told him she could not be seen with a “baby killer.”
Vietnam was an unpopular war in which more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed and more than 300,000 were wounded. Morgan came out of it with injuries to his knees, back and neck because of two awkward landings disembarking from aircraft — one time parachuting out of a plane, the other when he jumped off a helicopter carrying a machine gun and at least 800 rounds of ammunition.
“It was a war no one believed you could survive, but I managed to get through it, and then I resented being tossed into it,” he said.
Morgan left the military in 1972 and moved back into his parents’ home in Montague, N.J., but what he saw, felt and heard in the war took its toll. As time went on, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) dominated his life.
“My PTSD was so bad that I once hit my mother while having a nightmare, and I didn’t know I’d hit her until the next day when I saw her at the breakfast table,” Morgan recalled. “I could kill myself — my mother was a saint. I was hit by this dismal feeling — not just from the negativity of the country but my own guilt — and as these things evolved my dad threw me out. It was a crazy time.”
Eventually, Morgan sought counseling and returned to school at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) to earn a bachelor’s degree in Humanistic Psychology and a master’s in Psychology from GCU. Nearly 42 years after his service, Morgan was awarded a Silver Star, the third-highest award given to service men and women for bravery and courage under fire.
“It was an award he really deserved, and his response was very humble — ‘I was just doing my job,’” said Bill Gastmeyer, who first met Morgan in junior high. “That’s the way he was in high school — co-captain of the football team, a good-looking guy that all of the girls liked, a practical joker, but always humble.”
In many ways, Morgan said, he has been able to move on quite successfully. But his larger quest in life is to nurture his faith and to be a change-maker.
His passion for psychology enabled him to write “Simple Truth: The Whole Is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts,” a book discussing the individual relationship between personality and performance. He believes the way to help those with PTSD is by encouraging them to feel more comfortable with themselves.
At 65, Morgan decided to return to GCU for his doctorate after retiring in 2012 from the Michigan Department of Corrections, where he was a counselor.
“I’ve had a very strained career with one event after another, but it’s been lively and full of learning,” Morgan said. “This Ph.D. is the toughest intellectual thing I’ve ever been through, but I feel like I am getting a second wind in life and I am not going to close the door on these possibilities.
“I am dressed in flesh, but spiritually I am much more than that — GCU supports that concept — and I don’t want to run from that. I want to experience it.”
Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or [email protected]