A Story of Love and Survival
The Story of EOD2 Taylor Morris and Danielle Kelly
Taylor Morris is many things. He's a 25-year-old college student and a boyfriend to Danielle Kelly. He's also a real life example of the fighting spirit of the Navy.
"I wanted to do all the cool stuff that you saw in the movies and in the video games," said Morris. "I talked to a lot of the motivators and it just sounded like that was the right fit for me."
His high school sweetheart knew that it would take him away from her and their hometown in Cedar Falls, Iowa, but encouraged him every chance she got. While Kelly was earning her Bachelor's Degree at the University of Iowa, Morris was learning the basics about what it meant to be a Sailor and was getting his first taste of Navy special warfare.
"Up in Great Lakes, [Ill.] in the winter time, it's pretty frickin' cold," said Morris. "So they like to make you swim in the water and all that stuff."
The training was extensive. Morris attended a short preparatory course after graduating basic training at Recruit Training Command. Then came the two-month dive school. Morris said that portion was the most physically demanding part of the training pipeline.
"Your underwater competency: that gets a lot of people," said Morris. "Breath holds, getting attacked by the instructors underwater, they tie your gear in knots and you've got to have your eyes closed and your mask all blacked out, and be able to untie the hoses and re-rig your gear and set it up underwater."
After that, Morris went to explosive ordnance disposal school for another nine months. Morris said the focus there was more on academics than anything else.
"They kind of back off on the physical side and let you focus more on actually learning the stuff you need to know," said Morris. "I don't want to say it's unfair, but it's just one of those things. Anyone could have gotten dropped at any time. Nobody ever felt [so] safe and secure that they would make it until the very end."
Throughout their schooling, Morris and Kelly relied on long phone calls and short periodic visits to maintain their relationship.
"It worked out that we were each other's rock," said Kelly. "When he was having a bad day, it happened that I would be having a good day or vice versa, so we'd just lean on each other. Usually we'd like to look forward to the next time we'd see each other so we'd always have a countdown in our head and talk about what we planned to do when we saw each other so, no matter if you're having a good day or bad day that always brightens up a day."
The day after Kelly graduated from college she packed up her car and moved to Virginia Beach to be with Morris at his first duty station. After more than four years in a long distance relationship, the two were looking forward to spending more time together having a more typical relationship.
"I was excited to get in an argument and do all the relationship stuff," said Kelly. "Up until [then, we'd] only done long weekends, which [were] like honeymoon-phase. You're there three or four days together; you don't have time to get on each other's nerves. So I was excited just to be together."
Kelly spent a little less than a year in Virginia before separation struck again. Now Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician 2nd Class Taylor Morris was leaving for Afghanistan, and Kelly asked only two things of her boyfriend.
"I wanted him to tell me everything while he was over there," said Kelly. "So, he would tell me about his day, getting in a firefight or whatever it was, and I would tell him about my day, going to work and coming home or seeing my nephew."
The other thing Kelly wanted was for Morris to come back as the same person. The thought of him being wounded or injured never crossed her mind, but she knew post-traumatic stress was a reality for many service members returning from combat. Her biggest fear was that Morris would struggle emotionally when he returned. The two built their romantic relationship on a foundation of being best friends, and it was important to her Morris returned to her as the same man she grew to love.
That all changed May 3, 2012, when Morris stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
"I was up at the front clearing the way for the team," said Morris. "And they called me to the back to clear a path into the building. The idea was to strongpoint that building and fight back from there. As I was doing that, my detector went right over top of something, but it never went off so I stepped on that. It was a pressure plate buried under the ground which set off an IED."
Morris remained conscious during the incident and clearly remembers being blown into the air. He remained so cognizant, that he continued to report to his EOD team leader the details of the procedures he was conducting at the time of detonation, as well as what other hazards persisted.
"I kind of did a little self-assessment, and I knew at that time I lost my left arm, both my legs, and my right arm was still there but it was, like, paralyzed," said Morris. "I couldn't really move it."
Kelly was on her way to work when she got the call from one of Morris' teammates that her boyfriend had been hurt.
"He said that there had been an accident. I thought it was just the phone tree in action, and he was kinda just letting me know about something that had happened and never thought twice that it was Taylor," said Kelly.
The voice on the other end of the phone said, "It was Taylor. Taylor stepped on an IED."
Kelly said her whole world stopped in that moment.
"He went on to say he lost both of his legs, and then I don't know what happened, if I screamed or dropped the phone, or what, but I didn't hear the rest of it until he repeated it again. He said he lost both of his legs, for sure one arm, most likely his second arm as well."
Kelly gave the phone to her friend who was driving, to get the rest of the details. The two pulled over, Kelly got out of the car, paced around and felt sick.
"I immediately just wanted to be by his side," said Kelly.
As soon as Morris was wheels up on a plane from Germany to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Kelly was on her way to meet him there.
"I tried to picture how he would look in my head, and I couldn't, because I could only see Taylor how he was before he left for deployment." said Kelly. "When I walked in the room it was like an odd reassuring feeling that everything was going to be OK."
Morris doesn't remember much after the battle field triage began, aside from waking up once or twice with a tube down his throat while on an airplane. He doesn't remember anything until he began to wake up on the fourth floor at Walter Reed.
"Danielle basically lived in that room," said Morris. "[She] slept on the little reclining chair that they had and then basically would just leave to go shower at a hotel and come back. She was there for pretty much everything."
Morris was lucky. The fact he just survived was a feat in itself. However, Morris was also free of internal injuries; his limbs absorbed the impact of the blast. He also didn't show any symptoms of traumatic brain injury.
"It's ironic now because he literally came back missing all of his limbs, but is exactly the same person he was before he left," said Kelly.
Typically, once an amputee recovers enough to move on their own, patients begin physical therapy to start the process of regaining function of their lost limbs and working with prosthetics. Morris said it was encouraging to see people at Walter Reed with similar injuries walking and doing things for themselves.
"You see all different kinds of injuries and prosthetics and you don't know anything about them, but you can see what the guys are doing with them," said Morris. "It's good for the psyche to see where you can go."
Amputees are not pressured to rush the recovery process and are encouraged to take it one day at a time. Morris knew he wanted to be up on his prosthetic feet as quickly as possible.
"The therapists were really good about letting everyone go at their own pace," said Morris. "But I wanted to take it as fast as we could. And there are things you've got to wait on, like anytime you have a surgery or get stitches, you can't be in your [prosthetics] for three or four weeks."
Morris said there was a standard template they followed to gauge the milestones he would reach and the timeline during his recovery. He was even able to skip some milestones he could do on his own without the therapy.
"The approach we took was very aggressive," said Taylor. "But I'm happy because I feel like the results were just what I was looking for."
The road to recovery was long, and there's still work to be done, but Kelly remains by Morris' side every step of the way and is pleasantly surprised with his progress.
"I always knew that when Taylor put his mind to something he could accomplish it, and he was always full steam ahead, but for this I didn't know what to expect," said Kelly. "I didn't know I would get a phone call saying that Taylor lost all of his limbs, and six weeks later he would be up walking around on short legs."
In August 2012, Morris was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat "V" for his actions that day in Afghanistan.
"If I had hands, I'd take this off and pin it on Danielle," he said, after receiving the medal. "Because she's helped me through everything, and it's been so hard. She's been there the whole time."
These days, Morris is patiently awaiting his medical retirement. Until that day comes, he and Kelly keep busy between medical appointments by taking college classes and traveling around the country to various speaking engagements and charity events.
Morris had his last set of medical appointments scheduled for Dec. 9, 2013. Finishing those appointments will put Morris and Kelly one step closer to starting a new chapter in their lives.
"We're definitely looking forward to taking the next step, moving on to the next thing, and getting back to Iowa," said Morris.
"We found our dream piece of land. And so hopefully ... we can close on it and then come spring when all the snow melts and everything...we can just hit the ground and run in the spring and build [our new house.] [Taylor] can retire, and we can move back home and life can move on to the next phase."
To learn more about how the Navy cares for wounded warriors like Morris, check out Navy Safe Harbor, the Navy's wounded warrior program, at http://safeharbor.navylive.dodlive.mil.
You can also keep up with Morris and Kelly on Kelly's blog at www.taylormorris.org.
You can see more photos and video of the couple captured through the lens of their friend Tim Dodd at http://timdoddphotography.com/index2.php#/home/