I left the Marine Corps after thirteen years of commissioned service to become an Army Warrant Officer and fill a void because I needed to be able to answer the question “What If”.
I need to start from the beginning. I grew up an Army brat, born at the Fort Campbell, KY base hospital in the summer of 1982. My father was part of a newly formed unit of elite Army aviators stood up to provide precision rotary wing support to US Special Operations Forces after the failure of Desert One in Iran in the spring of 1980. He was among the few that paved the way for what is now the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), otherwise known as the “NightStalkers”.
I grew up obsessed with the military, intrigued by any unit deemed “special”. As I grew older and my arrogance got the best of me; I was convinced that I would only go “special ops” or be a pilot. Arrogance and ignorance usually go hand in hand. Like most headstrong adolescents, I was convinced it would be easy.
I graduated high school in the year 2000 and continued on to college. I signed up for Army ROTC and hated every minute of it. In my mind, I was surrounded by nerds that were glorified boy scouts and I couldn’t stand them. I was annoyed by the caliber of young Cadets in my class and looked for other opportunities. One day while walking to class, I happened upon a crusty Marine Gunnery Sergeant at a USMC Officer recruiting booth. He yelled “Hey, you wanna be a Marine Officer?” I replied “absolutely not”. When he asked me why, I couldn’t articulate a meaningful answer. I only knew that I wanted nothing to do with the Marines. At the time, I had no idea how wrong I was.
I eventually applied to the Marine Platoon Leaders Course (PLC). I went to Marine Officer Candidates School in 2004 and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant by my Father, an Army CW5 in December of 2005. I was eager to begin my journey as a young Officer in the world’s finest warfighting organization. I went to The Basic School to learn what being a Marine Officer was all about, excited for my follow on pilot training at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.
As a motivated young Lt in flight school, I only wanted to fly the AH-1W Super Cobra. I needed to fly that glorious death machine whose sole purpose was close air support to the hard charging Marines taking the fight directly to the enemy on the ground. I was lucky enough to get my first choice; a Cobra squadron at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, NC. A young and naïve 1stLt; I checked into my first fleet squadron with aspirations of becoming as formidable and deadly an attack pilot as possible. Throughout my progression as a Lieutenant and young Captain, I dedicated every spare moment I had to learning as much as I could about my profession in arms. Nothing else mattered. When that first “danger close” moment came; I wanted the Marines on the ground to be able to count on me to provide accurate, timely, and deadly fires; it consumed me. I progressed as a young instructor pilot and eventually attended the Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) Course in Yuma, AZ; I was ready for anything. Except for what happened after I got back.
My wife of seven years left me. I had been too consumed by my work to notice that I had been neglecting her for years. In my anger and pain, I blamed her; my arrogance still does. We often forget that the mission doesn’t matter to our loved ones the way it does to us; we choose this life, not them. They choose us.
After WTI, I immersed myself in my job. I was a recently divorced and short tempered Captain who knew everything and could do no wrong. I was eager to deploy again and had no qualms about deflecting my anger on young impressionable Lieutenants who just wanted to learn. I had become what I hated most; a selfish, bitter, and arrogant instructor pilot. After a few months of bitterness, I finally snapped out of my selfish pity and rage and came to my senses. It wasn’t about me and it never was. I was deploying again soon and had a lot to accomplish to get my squadron ready. I had to get my mind right. Most of all, I owed it to the young officers to be what they deserved; a salty Captain with all the answers and someone who would keep the field grade officers too busy to bother them with good ideas.
This is not a war story. There were rough moments during the deployment, but it was nothing compared to what our brethren on the ground endured. Throughout the deployment I became frustrated with our reactive mentality. We stood Troops in Contact (TIC) support every day, 24 hours a day, as a unit. We would hear that awful chirp drop on MIRC chat and immediately knew our Marines, British counterparts, or the ODA we were supporting were in trouble and we’d launch at a moment’s notice to provide Close Air Support or MEDEVAC/CASEVAC escort. But we were reactive and defensive in nature and I absolutely despised it. We were supposed to be bringing the fight to the enemy; not letting them set the tempo. We were failing to take the initiative and politicians were tying our hands with restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE).
As my frustrations grew, I began to question my future in the military. I debated getting out and doing the typical Officer thing; get an MBA and figure it out. However, I knew deep down that I had a void to fill and needed something more. I applied for an exchange program with the 160th SOAR to fly the AH-6 Little Bird as the Marine Exchange Pilot. I got selected as the alternate and was furious. In my disappointment, I decided to accept a “Hotfill” job with the United States Marine Corps Embassy Security Group as an Inspecting Officer. For three years I traveled to every country in continental South America to inspect the Marine Security Guards safeguarding the Embassies and Consulates in South America. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and a much-needed break from the typical military life. I got to live as a pseudo civilian in Fort Lauderdale, travel alone to a different country in South America every month, meet a lot of very influential people, and most of all, I even met my amazing now wife while I lived there. But I still wasn’t satisfied professionally. The void that had always been there hadn’t gone away. I was starting to feel guilty that I had it “too easy”. An emptiness festered inside of me due to less face to face interaction with my Marines and I became frustrated with “leadership by email” and micro-management. I was talking, not doing and I knew it would only get worse the further I climbed up the ladder. Something had to change.
Unfulfilled, I decided to apply directly to the 160th SOAR and assessed in September 2016. It was the strangest yet most fulfilling week of my life. I can’t go into details, but I was intrigued and immediately knew I was in the right place. I ended up passing and was selected for the MH-60 DAP (Direct Action Penetrator) on the condition that I would resign my commission and apply to the US Army as a Warrant Officer.
Today I support the nation’s elite Special Operations Warriors in a modified Blackhawk gunship that brings more hate and discontent to the battlefield than any other rotary wing platform in the US inventory. I’m a CW2 at the bottom of the food chain and had to completely start over, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Service in the military means certain things to certain people; to some it’s not about service, it’s about getting something out of it. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m guilty of the latter. I love my country and I’ve dedicated a significant amount of my adult life to serving, but if we’re being honest, I just wanted more. The curiosity, the allure of Special Operations, and the desire to do more drove me down this path. A lot of people, including my wife, are convinced I’m out of my mind for giving up a career as a field grade officer in the Marine Corps to be a junior Warrant Officer in the Army. Forfeiting $40,000 a year and the potential of being selected for Command sounds crazy to some. To me it’s not as crazy as always wondering “What If I could’ve done more”. I can live with taking the risk, but I can’t live the rest of my life wondering “What If”.
Die Living isn’t just a motto; it’s a way of life and a state of mind. Some might even argue that it’s a curse, but it’s definitely more than a salary. You only die once, but you get to live every day. Make the most of those days and make decisions that allow you to live with confidence that you did something with your life that deserves remembrance. Don’t live on the side lines, live a life that matters Die Living, NSDQ, DRMF!
- Dave Morris