Jack Morrow is, in statistical terms, a member of Lower Manhattan’s tiniest minority. The Gateway Plaza resident is one of the very few Downtown dwellers who is also an active duty member of the United States armed forces. In this case, Major Morrow serves in the U.S. Army, in which capacity he is currently deployed in Qatar.
Both Lower Manhattan and Qatar are worlds away from Pomeroy, Washington, the town where Major Morrow grew up in the 1980s, which had, “1200 people and was located 29 miles from closest traffic light,” he laughs. He was first drawn to the military because, “I ran out of money for college. Basically I was working 40 hours a week on a construction site and an additional 30 hours a week delivering pizzas during the summer between sophomore and what would have been my junior year. I got my financial aid statement and realized I was nowhere close to being able to pay for school, so I went to my local recruiting office to find another way to pay for college.” He enlisted in the Army in February, 1998, and began basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri that month.
Private First Class Jack Morrow, who was soon deployed to Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo, initially did not see the military as a lifelong calling. “I thought for sure I was going to serve my four-year enlistment, then get out and use the G.I. Bill and Army College Fund to pay for school,” he recalls. But the Army had different ideas, and offered him a coveted seat at the United States Military Academy. “I got admitted to West Point and that changed everything,” he says. “Suddenly I was presented an opportunity to study at a school that was in a much higher tier than I ever imagined myself attending.”
While he was a sophomore at West Point (where he studied from 2000 through 2004), the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed the world forever. “When you’re that young and you don’t know the long-term outcome,” he reflects of that day, “it’s hard to assess how an event like that will impact your life, and initially, not much changed. The one difference, though, was we began talking about war as more of a reality than a possibility. We knew that war would come to us.”
After graduating from West Point in 2004, he trained for two years, and then was deployed as a First Lieutenant to Iraq in 2006, spending 14 months assigned to Tal Afar and Ar Ramadi, where he experienced combat for the first time. “When you’re training,” he observes of the difference between ersatz battle and the real thing, “as soon as you move, everything explodes and there are simulated casualties all around you. When you’re on patrol, it’s usually not like that. Things are not constantly exploding and people are not continually dying. Often it’s tedious and boring, but you have to stay focused because the shooting can start at any moment.”
“You never know how you’re going to react,” he observes about the crash and thunder of military engagement. “You always realize later that there was something else that you could have done. You could have forced yourself to be more alert, no matter how long you’ve been without sleep. You try to learn from mistakes, but you have to strike a balance between learning from experience and applying those lessons to situations where they aren’t relevant.”
After rotating out of Iraq, he was promoted to Captain and given the opportunity to study for a Master of Public Affairs degree at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. In 2009, he returned to Iraq, serving as a combat advisor in Baghdad for two months, before deploying to Afghanistan, and serving as an aide to Brigadier General Mark Martins, who was the Deputy Commander of a task force assigned to help the Afghan government establish rule of law and provide due process in criminal proceedings, rather than holding people indefinitely on vague or unproven terrorism charges. “Essentially we were helping the Afghan government give their citizens a day in court,” Major Morrow recalls, “where a jury could determine their innocence or guilt. As a combined, joint, interagency task force, we had Department of State, FBI, and Department of Justice officials working side by side with Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, in addition to similar officials from the United Kingdom and the Afghan government.
But combat and command still awaited. In 2011, he was made company commander of the 693rd Engineer Company, of the Seventh Engineer Battalion, as it served in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. A company of “sappers,” the 693rd Engineers specialized in demolitions, as well as emplacing and clearing minefields. “As a company commander I was fortunately still in a position where I could lead from the front, sharing risks with my Soldiers,” he recalls. “Leadership at the platoon and company level is the richest experience, because you are in a position to have a positive impact the lives of so many people. Leading soldiers in dangerous situations are experiences that I am proud of, and that I will value for the rest of my life.
“The biggest way in which leading soldiers changed me,” he reflects, “is that I feel a greater sense of empathy towards all people than I did previously. For me to lead effectively, I needed to connect with and understand my soldiers. Each person is different and connecting with that person required a departure from my own perspective, from my own way of seeing things, toward theirs. When you do that often enough, for long enough — for me, anyway — you really come to realize just how tough life is for everyone. And not just for the soldiers I lead, but for everyone I meet, really. Having that experience has caused me, when I’m at my best anyway, to be more empathetic.”
After Afghanistan (and a promotion to his current rank of Major), he was invited to return to West Point — this time as a member of the faculty, serving as an Assistant Professor of Political Science from 2013 through earlier this year. “Teaching at West Point was a wonderful experience,” he notes. “It was hard work, but it was the most fulfilling assignment I’ve had in the Army. First and foremost, teaching there gave me the opportunity to give back to an institution that gave so much to me. Most of the students really care about learning, and that makes the classroom a remarkable place to explore new ideas and refine one’s thinking. Second, the caliber of people I worked with on the faculty was phenomenal — incredibly collegial and intelligent in every way. Also, teaching at West Point gave me the chance to live under the same roof as my wife, Michelle, in New York City, and that was a big plus, for sure.” (Major Morrow and his wife met while he was stationed in Germany in 2004. She earned an R.O.T.C. commission from North Carolina State University, served for four years of active duty in the U.S. Army, as well as another 18 months in the Army Reserve.)
Asked about the difference between today’s recruits and his generation, Major Morrow observes, “young people of this generation are probably smarter than I was at that age, and they are definitely more comfortable with rapidly changing technology. This is a definite upside, since the wars we fight are complex and they rely on intelligent people to fight them, with technologically advanced tools.”
“On the flip side,” he notes, “young people entering the Army don’t always have a physically demanding upbringing and many of them don’t have a lot of experience spending time outside or in the wilderness. Fitness and field craft are, of course, fundamental to what we do in the Army, even in a military as technologically advanced as ours. You can teach the field craft part and help people get used to roughing it, so to speak, but the fitness piece is a challenge. You can’t just give a person a 50-pound rucksack and have them walk 12 miles. They will get stress fractures or develop other, more serious injuries over time. Generally speaking, I think the physical conditioning period is probably longer for this generation writ large, and that’s something we have to work through as an Army.”
After four years of teaching at West Point, Major Morrow was sent aboard once again, this time to Qatar, where he is currently assigned as the Brigade Operations Officer for an Area Support Group. “A lot of what I do now is contingency planning,” he says. “Without getting too specific, I will say that we are situated in an unstable region, and there are a lot of possibilities we have to prepare for. My job is to make sure we are preparing for those contingencies in a holistic manner. On a day-to-day basis, I’m essentially just overseeing reporting on basecamp operations from a security and logistics standpoint. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is surprisingly busy. It’s also a lot different from what I’ve done in the past, which was mostly explosive demolitions at the platoon level, involving 30 people, and the company level, with about 120 people, in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Serving, in effect, as mid-level management, has confronted Major Morrow with a challenging transition faced by generations of officers promoted away from the front lines. “Being on a staff is very different from the more clearly defined leadership position of platoon leader or a company commander, where it is easier to lead from the front and get things done by working alongside your Soldiers,” Morrow says. In a headquarters, “you are issuing orders you can’t possibly play a role in helping to execute. Add to that imperfect information and time constraints and now you are the source of headaches and bad ideas others have to follow. I obviously try to do good staff work, but I inevitably fall short and that creates headaches for others. At the staff level, I know I’m the guy issuing orders that I used to grouse about in the field. You work through this by building social capital with people around you, and people give you the benefit of the doubt. But it’s not the same.”
“Officers don’t look back from retirement and have fond memories of orders they drafted or PowerPoint presentations they compiled,” he explains, wistfully. “These are important, but not as visceral as time spent with soldiers. The difference is that on staff, it’s harder to find ways to lead by doing.”
It was from his current assignment in Qatar that Major Morrow heard of the recent terrorist attack on West Street. “I didn’t have much of an emotional reaction, because I wasn’t close to the situation,” he reflects. “I would also add that once you’ve already made philosophical peace with the way that the world works, you put up emotional barriers to this kind of thing. I’ve increasingly done this in my time during the Army, the more I’ve been around death and killing. These are mechanisms you create during moments of calm to prepare for moments of chaos.”
In terms of the questions raised by such a tragedy, he reflects, “being vulnerable in this way is the price we pay for openness and for a republic. Other problems, like the environment, driving safety, gun violence, and drug addiction exact a much higher price in lives. So I’m not rattled, and the recent attack hasn’t changed my positions on the balance between security and liberty. Every life we lose is tragic, but in no way do I think any terrorist attack should prompt us to clamp down on civil liberties or civil rights in the false belief that this will somehow prevent terrorism within our borders. Doing so we be antithetical to American values.”
Asked to consider the divide between military life and a community in which very few service members reside, Major Morrow observes, “it’s true that many people in New York City haven’t served in uniform or may be somewhat disconnected from what the military does, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s a sign that America is working, maybe a little too well. On the alternate end of the spectrum, you have a society consumed by war. This is a reality for a lot of people in this world, and it is something no sane person would want.”
“Ideally, all Americans, myself included, would have a better understanding of what all government institutions exist to do, not just the military,” he adds. “That’s just part of being a good citizen,” he adds. “Because of the isolation of most military bases from major population centers in the United States, I’ve seen a number of people in the military assume that people in big cities like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles are living in an alternate reality, disconnected from the rest of America. It’s not just people in the military doing that, of course: rural Americans frequently don’t understand urban Americans. And the inverse also applies, as big city dwellers frequently misunderstand the values of those who live in less populated areas.”
“The more the military is cloistered from the greater society it serves,” he reflects, “the less likely it is to understand that client. And make no mistake about it, society is the client of the military profession. Our founders feared that a standing Army isolated from society would eventually develop interests and imperatives independent of, or in opposition to, the interests and imperatives of the society it serves. It’s important for everyone in the military to recognize that urban and rural, conservative and liberal points of view all have value regardless of how they align with our own personal values. Sometimes we in the military lose sight of that.”
Major Morrow plans to remain in the Army until he reaches 20 years of service, five years from now, “and then I will transition back to civilian life,” he predicts. As for his plans after leaving the military, he says, “first of all, I want to keep living in Battery Park City. It’s a great neighborhood with civic minded people who work hard to keep it that way. I have to say that I am grateful for all of the work the Gateway Plaza Tenants Association and other civic groups have done to keep our neighborhood affordable and help it remain a place where people want to live and get to know each other. That really inspires me and is a big part of why I want to stay in Battery Park City.”
“As for work,” he says, “I would like to continue my career as a public servant even after I hang up my uniform. I’m really fascinated by the transportation infrastructure and urban planning aspects of New York City. I love walking through our streets and just observing all of the activities. What makes one block vibrant? What makes another block dull? What sorts of things bring people together in public places? What sorts of things choke off public life? I want to look at working in these sectors of public service. It would be really great if I could somehow be involved in doing work for our neighborhood in Battery Park City. I just need to make the time to start attending BPCA Open Community Meetings and Community Board 1 meetings when I get back, so I can get a better sense of what the options are.”
Asked to reflect on what about military life he would least have expected on the day he enlisted, he admits, “I’m surprised by how much fun I’ve had, as well as how meaningful serving in the Army has been to me. I imagined the Army would be full of homogenous personalities, and it turns out it was far more eclectic than any environment I’d been in before. The military is actually a great place to grow intellectually and morally. If you go through your time in the military with the wrong attitude, you can come out an imbecile and be morally reprehensible. But if you really commit to learning the profession and living its values, you can really transform into a better version of yourself over time.”
“And I guess I wasn’t prepared to feel as proud as I did about being part of something bigger than me,” he adds, “an organization loyal to a noble set of ideas — the U.S. Constitution. That’s true for me no matter which elected leaders are doing their best — but are still imperfect — in their efforts to turn those ideas into actions on behalf of the American people.”