Nick Morgan is not your average military veteran.
He’s not your average University of Colorado student, either.
And it’s not just because of his long hair or the scar next to his right eye.
After serving in Iraq, and questioning the purpose of that mission, Morgan became an anti-war activist. During a protest prior to a 2008 presidential debate in New York, he was injured in what he says was a case of police brutality.
According to Morgan, he was trampled by a cop on a horse and suffered serious head injuries that required multiple surgeries.
He just left Boulder for Long Island, where his lawsuit over the incident will finally go to trial this week.
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Morgan joined the Army Reserves in 2002, during his junior year in high school. His reasoning? To get money for college and, due to the 9/11 attacks, “there was a lot of patriotism in the air,” he says. “Maybe it was out of a sense of duty.”
He graduated from basic training on the day the U.S. invaded Iraq, and he was deployed in 2004.
Morgan says his first questions were, “We’re going where, to do what, to who, and why?”
His doubts about the mission only grew during his service overseas. While his daily missions, which primarily involved finding explosive devices, were clear, it was the overall goal of the operation that left him and his fellow soldiers with questions.
Nick Morgan in Iraq | Photo courtesy of Nick Morgan
“A lot of people, early on, felt duped,” he says, suggesting that the war was more about oil and lining the pockets of contractors than it was about the various reasons given at the time.
“We were told it was about freedom and democracy, but I’ll be damned if that’s what freedom and democracy look like,” he says, citing his superiors’ efforts to dehumanize the enemy by using racist names. “But when you’re a young soldier, you’re taught to do the opposite of ask questions.”
For Morgan and several fellow soldiers, the mission shifted toward a new goal, one of getting each other out alive. They made a commitment “to take care of each other and get home in one piece,” he says.
Indeed, he returned in one piece, but Morgan says America proved to be far from a safe haven.
When he got home in February 2005, Morgan says, he went into a “cocoon” and soon realized the value of being around other vets. To this day, he feels more comfortable talking to an old war veteran than most of his peers at CU, where he studies ecology and evolutionary biology.
“When you’re exposed to such an extreme situation for an extended period of time, it changes your perspective, and there’s solace in surrounding yourself with people who have had a similar experience,” he says. “It’s hard to explain, but maybe you don’t have to explain yourself, or how you act or think.”
After his official discharge in 2006, he moved to Colorado to help a buddy start Veterans Green Jobs, a program designed to provide environmental work to returning soldiers. He also joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, because he wanted to “step up and let the world know what is going on, or at least let America know.” Morgan points out that less than 1 percent of Americans have family members serving in the military, and perhaps that lack of shared sacrifice downplays it in the nation’s consciousness. Or maybe, like the emerging police state, the real reasons behind our military actions are among the most underreported stories in the media, Morgan says.
“We’ve been at war for 12 years; I didn’t read that in the fucking paper today,” he says, adding that the perspective he gained overseas made him realize that most of what Americans worry about is “really fucking silly. Just turn on your TV.”
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Morgan apologizes for the expletives, then describes the anti-war protest where he sustained his injuries. It was held four years ago this month, outside the final presidential debate between candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Morgan and his fellow Iraq Veterans Against the War wanted a question about veterans’ issues asked at the debate, but they were denied. At an anti-war protest organized outside the debate, several veterans crossed a police barrier and were arrested, but Morgan intentionally stayed out of that group.
He says he was trying to stay out of trouble; he had an important meeting with the Veterans Administration that week to discuss the continuation of his benefits.
But at one point during the protest, police in riot gear were trying to get a few hundred people to move off the street and back onto the sidewalk. Morgan says he was part of a line of veterans who were wearing their desert camouflage fatigues and standing at parade rest (hands behind back) between the cops and the crowd of civilian protesters. Cops mounted on horses began spinning into them, Morgan says, and he was knocked down onto the sidewalk, where a horse stepped on his face and he briefly blacked out. Morgan says he does remember subsequently being dragged across the street, blood pouring from his wound, some gauze taped to his face, and into a paddy wagon. The cops claim he initially refused medical attention.
Morgan’s injury | Photo by Bill Perry
“They should never have touched me while I was unconscious, with a head injury,” Morgan says. “Secondly, I was not in the right state of mind to answer.”
Eventually, he recalls, a plainclothes officer took him to a hospital, where a doctor gave him motrin, amoxicillin and directions he couldn’t read due to blurred vision. Then it was on to jail.
He had his first surgery a week later to repair crushed facial bones. A titanium wire was inserted to keep his eyeball in, Morgan says. He needed plastic surgery a year and a half later to remove scar tissue because his incisions didn’t heal properly. Morgan suspects he still suffers from TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder) as a result of the injury.
He was charged with disorderly conduct, as were other protesters who were arrested that day. According to Morgan, he was acquitted after completing a probation period.
Then he filed suit against Nassau County and several of the officers involved. Among his allegations are violations of the First, Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. About a dozen defendants were named in the suit, including certain cops identified only as “John Doe” because they weren’t wearing nametags at the time of the protest. Morgan says officers have given conflicting accounts of the incident in their dispositions, and one even claimed the wounds were selfinflicted, which videos of the altercation call into question. (A YouTube search for his name and “Iraq veteran” turns up several.)
Portions of the suit have been dismissed, he says, like the tactical policy changes he wanted the police to implement. But he has reportedly already turned down a settlement offer.
The two-week trial begins Monday, Oct. 29.
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Morgan points out that all U.S. citizens enjoy certain constitutional rights, and that those who enlist for military service swear to protect the Constitution against the nation’s enemies both foreign and domestic.
Troubling, then, when a veteran who has actually fought to protect those rights feels like his own exercise of them is trampled on.
“I just had some questions,” he says. “To be almost killed for that, that’s very problematic.”
As for the camo fatigues, he refuses to put the uniform back on.
“There’s still blood on it, I haven’t worn it since,” Morgan says. “The symbolism isn’t worth it to me.”
Yes, he acknowledges that he is interested in getting some cash out of the lawsuit.
“At this point, it’s about getting as much money as I can for my troubles,” Morgan says. “But I’m not into wealth, just look at how I dress.”
More than a big payout, he says, he wants to raise awareness about issues like police brutality and the reasons why we go to war.
“They have a monopoly on violence,” he says of the cops, adding that his heart rate still goes up whenever he sees one. “You can’t defend yourself against police brutality. … Cops in New York don’t give a shit about beating up a black kid in the Bronx, because they don’t live in that neighborhood.
“That’s a demographic I cannot respect,” he adds. “They don’t protect people, they protect property.”
As for the Iraq war and other conflicts, Morgan appreciates the sympathy of civilians who show their support by putting yellow-ribbon magnets and stickers on their cars, but that only goes so far.
“Support your troops?” he asks. “By what? Sending junk food to troops in Iraq? That’s nice sentiment, but it’s not supporting them.”
He reiterates that the media seems to keep much of the population dumbed-down by underreporting stories that might challenge the powerful.
“It’s easy to be complacent when you’re ignorant,” he says.