Warning: The content of this story may be difficult for some veterans.
Gone was his 15-year career, the elation of being selected for the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club, and his numerous accolades. All he could think about was the four-letter diagnosis he couldn’t imagine living with: PTSD.
As part of the US Marine Corps from 1996-2001, Morales managed to be resilient and strong mentally and physically. Morales never saw the effects war can have on survivors, but that changed when he transitioned into the U.S. military and became a public affairs journalist.
“I saw death through the lens of my camera,” Morales recalls. “It was like the worst parts of a movie.”
From 2009-2010 Morales was deployed to Iraq with the divisional headquarters and headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division, and from 2011-2012 he was deployed to Afghanistan with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Inf. dept.
Morales, with the support of the leadership, had taken the first steps to seek help because he knew something wasn’t right with him. Unfortunately, that experience was not worth it.
“I was really turned off because the counselor and the sessions were too academic,” Morales said. “There was no personal relationship or empathy between me and the counselor, so I stopped.”
Morales occasionally had strange feelings that he could not explain. When he transferred to the 3rd US Infantry Regiment, “the Old Guard,” at Fort Meyer, Virginia, things went from bad to worse.
“The regiment could do up to 26 funerals a day, and I…all of us…were surrounded by death,” Morales said. “It was at that point that I went back into therapy and made some progress.”
The veteran admitted that in addition to counseling, he also had responsibilities that prevented him or his mind from focusing on his situation.
“I was a leader, which meant I took care of the training and readiness of my soldiers,” Morales continued. “I was always busy and my mind never slowed down.”
When he transferred to the Network Enterprise Technology Command in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, that all changed.
“I was an office of one and I collapsed,” Morales admitted. “I knew how important it is to lead by example as a senior leader, so I tried counseling again, thinking that getting help might motivate others to do the same.”
Morales’ counselor recommended a three-month PTSD program in Denver with the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center.
“I was hesitant, I didn’t want to go because I thought they would recommend my release from the military,” Morales said. “I told my counselor I felt I was still confused and wanted to serve, and she told me she wouldn’t push for a medical evaluation committee.”
As a patient, Morales did cognitive processing therapy, group therapy, and worked on personal impact statements. He was also presented with a solution.
“The immediate solution was that I had to accept everything and change my way of thinking,” Morales continued. “One of the sentences that stuck with me was: bad things happen to good people.†
Just as he was beginning to accept the diagnosis that Sgt. 1st Class Morales had PTSD, he got more news.
“I was told that based on the evaluation and my participation in the program at the Denver VA, I was no longer effective in combat,” Morales said.
His counselor had kept her word about not pursuing a Med Board, but the Denver VA medical staff had decided it was best for Morales.
“My life came crashing down,” said a gloomy Morales. “I was the go-to guy who had worked for 15 years and planned to do more than 20; I was a recipient of Sergeant Audie Murphy. Now I am told I am unfit.”
Morales admitted that he became two people in his own mind. Professionally, he saw himself as a successful person. Personally, he saw himself as a broken man.
During his time at Denver VA, Morales met a peer support specialist.
“He was a Vietnam veteran and I felt comfortable knowing there was someone who was a veteran like me,” Morales continued. “This made a difference because I knew I wasn’t just going to be going clinical; I would get help from a fellow soldier.”
Morales recalls that the veteran painted a picture of what life with PTSD was like, and while the veteran wasn’t eloquent with his words, Morales said he left him a strong message.
“He told me PTSD is a life sentence, but it was manageable,” Morales added.
When Morales left Denver and returned to Arizona, he joined the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association.
“That’s when my healing really started,” Morales said. “I have found a productive outlet.”
Morales met the qualifications for full membership and realized that while he had been removed from one formation, there was another that would welcome him into their ranks. When he left the military and moved to Florida, Morales chose to receive his health care from James A Haley Veterans’ Hospital & Clinics.
When he was Dr. Chow, Morales was immediately at ease.
“I saw a plaque on his wall and I realized we had been in the same battle room,” Morales continued. “Now I had a war fighter next to me who gives me the care I need, and it was great.”
Over the years, Morales’ love for VA has grown during his time at Tampa.
“I can honestly say that the staff on this team were – by no means – amazing,” said Morales.
A few years ago, Morales’s therapist suggested getting out of his comfort zone. It sparked an idea that grew exponentially to levels Morales never thought possible. Morales’ idea was to host a motorcycle evening for veterans.
“The success of that event motivated me to have a personal mission to help one veteran a week,” continued Morales. “Whether it’s a text, a phone call, or a visit to the VFW, I know work is helpful because as soon as I stop doing nothing, my daemons resurface.”
At the event, Morales met a fellow Tampa VA veteran, friend and collaborator, “Super” Dave Allen, who would be instrumental in Morales’ journey to help himself and others. Together, the two were part of a six-member group that became the first Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association in the nation to lead a Final Mile Salute.
“If a veteran dies and has no family to claim him, we work with the local police to escort that veteran to the cemetery,” Morales said. “The goal is to make sure no veteran goes to his final resting place alone.”
Morales said he works to remember the good times of his shift, but he also respects the battle with PTSD.
“The main conclusion from my experience is that we have the life we live, and it’s up to us to define that,” Morales continued. “It’s hard and it never gets easier, but I know I can handle it.”
Morales has moved on in his personal life as well. He has a son and his girlfriend, Autumn, is also a war veteran.
“I have someone at home with whom I can talk about my emotions,” Morales said. “She’s been there, as have I, and we know what it’s like. We are champions for each other.”
Morales admits he still has tough days, but he has a strong network of support and he is motivated to keep working to help other veterans like him because it gives him purpose.
“I have a good life,” Morales said. “I know I deserve a good life…so does every veteran.”
The Veterans Crisis Line connects veterans and service members in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text message.
Telephone call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 124/7† Click here to chat online; or Text to 838255.