In the weeks leading up to his death, James Morris went to classes at the local community college. He played video games with his younger brother. He watched “Jeopardy” with his grandma.
All the while, a gun Morris had stolen from his grandma’s house was stashed in the glove box of his 2005 Hyundai Elantra.
The 27-year-old knew he wanted to kill himself, he just didn’t know when.
“It wasn’t until after it happened I was able to look back and see, ‘Oh yeah, that was probably … but at the time, you don’t see it,” said his grandma, Darlene Wilson. “So I have to live with that.”
Having been married to two Vietnam War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, Wilson said she saw some of the signs in her grandson, who lived with her. He didn’t wake up screaming like her first husband, but he couldn’t sleep. He’d walk the neighborhood in the middle of the night. He drank heavily near the end. He was even arrested for shooting windows at a Cascade Middle School after hours. He holed up in his room. Got divorced.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs labeled Morris 70 percent disabled after returning from active duty in 2013, including a deployment to Afghanistan, due to PTSD, major depressive disorder and anxiety. His condition impaired his impulse control and rendered him unable to establish and maintain relationships. It caused him to engage in obsessive rituals. There were motivation and mood disturbances. Suspiciousness.
The government estimates between 11 and 20 out of every 100 veterans return from Afghanistan and Iraq with PTSD. A 2012 VA report estimated 18 to 22 veterans kill themselves each day, although the majority of suicides are among those 50 and older.
Now, Morris’ family thinks the VA should do more to make sure those diagnosed with PTSD get help.
“James got brushed under the carpet,” said his mother, Tammy Boyd, of Bend. “He was in the war, but he lost the battle here. That could have been prevented and it’s something that needs to be changed. Somebody needs to do something.”
A police officer pulled Morris over for a burnt out headlight at Badger Road near SE Third Street shortly after 8 p.m. on Nov. 27. He and his younger brother, 24-year-old Andrew Boyd, had been on their way to Walmart. When the officer walked back to his car to run Morris’ information, Morris pulled out the gun, which was tucked near his left leg.
“He told him, ‘I’m sorry, bro, I’m gonna commit suicide,” Tammy Boyd recounted.
Andrew tried to pull the gun away . The first bullet flew just past his face.
For Morris, the second shot — just behind his left ear — was fatal.
His mother took him off life support early the next morning.
‘They had a lot of anger’
James Morris’ life was troubled from the start.
His father, Vince Morris, who lives in Oklahoma, was in prison for much of the boy’s childhood, starting when he was a 1-year-old. Tammy Boyd was an IV drug user when Morris was very young, said Wilson, Boyd’s mother. She eventually entered rehab, but the state still asked Wilson to care for Morris. He was 4 years old.
Having already experienced multiple traumas, Morris had started raising hell, acting out his angst. Wilson said she remembers her grandson setting his stuffed Barney toy on fire. The doll’s electronic voice box repeated, ‘I love you,’ from inside the dumpster.
“The boys had a lot of problems,” she said, “and they had a lot of anger.”
The state would not allow Wilson to take both boys because of the trouble they caused when they were together, so Andrew was placed in foster care, and ended up rotating through behavioral programs until he was 18.
Neither Wilson nor Boyd could say what drove Morris to go into the Army — Boyd said they weren’t talking at the time — but Wilson said he carried a lot of anger when he enlisted in 2008.
In Afghanistan, Morris would go on multiday convoy missions. That’s where a group of soldiers drives for hours from one camp to another to deliver supplies or personnel. The job carried the daily risk that an improvised explosive device could go off or that the convoy would be ambushed.
“They were on the road — I can’t remember how often — but it wasn’t just one day, go out in the morning come back in the afternoon, it was drive the roads in Afghanistan for a decent period of time,” said Wayne Jamieson, who served with Morris.
Morris told his grandma about the time his convoy passed through a town and a suicide bomber ran toward one of their vehicles. Luckily for them, the attacker detonated his bomb too soon and missed the convoy. The attack did, however, prompt one of their drivers to veer off the road and hit a tree.
Morris landed in the middle of the dead attacker’s exploded remains when he jumped out of his truck to help with the accident.
“He was so sickened by that,” Wilson said, adding that she encouraged him to talk about it. He followed her advice, sharing additional stories and pictures.
Those who served with Morris in the Army describe him as happy-go-lucky. A jokester at times, but professional when he needed to be.
“I’m still shocked by it, because he was kind of the life of the party,” said 25-year-old Jarred Morse of Clarksville, Tennessee. “He always had jokes.”
Morse recalled a time when Morris told the guys in the platoon office that he’d almost wrecked his truck. Morse asked what happened.
“And he said, ‘Dude, there was a spider,’” Morse said. “The man wasn’t afraid of anything, except spiders.”
The Army promoted Morris to sergeant, and his discharge paperwork lists a number of military honors, including the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Combat Action Badge and the Sharpshooter Marksmanship Badge.
John Cooper, 33, who also served with Morris, said he wasn’t open about his struggles, instead he focused on cheering up his fellow “battle buddies.”
Once when Cooper, who now lives in Huntsville, Alabama, was having a particularly bad day, Morris asked him what was wrong. They talked, and Morris said something that will stick with Cooper for the rest of his life.
“He said, ‘Hey, look at it this way: It could always be worse,’” Cooper recalled. “‘You could always be hit in the throat with a hockey puck.’”
It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Far from it.
Morris had a tearful conversation with Paul Pelly, one of his teachers at Central Oregon Community College, about lessons learned in the military while serving in Afghanistan to be angry with the enemy.
“‘They had us so mad with these people,’” Pelly recalled Morris saying. “Man, I can’t even imagine,” he added.
Falling out of control
It’s impossible to know what was going on in Morris’ head when he and two friends drove to Cascade Middle School armed with a 9 mm handgun in October. Even Morris wasn’t sure. A police report quoted him as saying, “What the f--- was I thinking?”
The three men had been students there, but Morris had been suspended before enrolling in an alternative high school and joining the Army.
In the weeks following the shooting, Morris would tell Pelly that he was still angry with his former middle school teachers for never intervening when he was bullied.
“This is the outcome of that deep-seated anger that the teachers didn’t do anything about,” Pelly said.
When they got there, the young men, all 27, fired at least 15 shots at a security camera, according to police records. Morris’ gun ran out of bullets and his friend handed him a handful of rounds. They walked around the building by the gym and climbed over a chain-link fence. They shot through a couple of windows and a parked truck that belonged to a janitor working inside. When someone spotted them, the three rushed back to their vehicle and sped away.
Morris told police he didn’t know about the two maintenance workers in the building at the time. When he learned the truck they shot belonged to someone inside, he told a detective it “terrifies the f--- out of him.” When a police detective asked Morris to explain himself, he told him his life was “falling out of control.” That he was suffering from PTSD. That he couldn’t stop the ringing in his ears. That he had gotten divorced.
The fact that a veteran suffering from PTSD engaged in dangerous behavior involving firearms is no surprise to James Sardo, the patient care line manager for the PTSD clinical team at the Portland VA Health Care System. Sardo is a psychologist who sees many veterans with PTSD, although he was not seeing Morris.
High-risk behaviors are common among returning veterans — who consequently see higher rates of accidental deaths compared with the general population — because they hunger for the same adrenaline rush they would get during their deployments.
“You would intuit that if I survived combat, I might come home and say, ‘That’s it. I’m going to live a safe life,’ but the exact opposite thing happens,” Sardo said. “They get killed in things like high-speed driving, motorcycles, skydiving accidents, jumping off tall bridges into rivers. Anything that re-creates the adrenaline that they are missing now.”
Whatever was behind the shooting, the event marked a crucial turning point for Morris: from a slow descent to a rapid downward spiral. He faced multiple counts of criminal mischief, recklessly endangering another person and unlawful use of a weapon. He made bail shortly after being arrested. His family said he worried about spending several years behind bars. She said they were also trying to negotiate inpatient counseling through the VA as an alternative.
Morris shot himself a week before his plea hearing.
‘Just a little bit too late’
Four days before he shot himself, Morris stormed out of the room 15 minutes into his automotive tech class at COCC.
Pelly, his teacher, asked someone else to take over and went looking for Morris. He found him sitting in his car in the parking lot, crying.
Morris told his teacher he had been trying to get counseling for his PTSD during the more than two years since he’d returned from Afghanistan. He claimed he’d tried everywhere although it’s unclear how persistent he’d been. Morris had recently scheduled a mental health appointment with the VA for Jan. 11.
“He told me that was the first help that he was gonna get, but that it was a little bit too late,” Pelly said.
Morris told Pelly he felt like his life was over after the middle school shooting. Pelly could tell his student was on the brink.
“I did ask him in the car, ‘Are you stable enough, or are you at a point where you have given up?’” Pelly recalled. “He said, ‘I’m stable,’ and he looked down at the floor. I said, ‘James, I’ve been out here talking with you. I need you to look me in the eye and tell me you are not going to do something stupid.’ He put his eyes up and he looked at me and said, ‘No sir, I will not do anything stupid.’”
Pelly and other professors wanted to help Morris. They tried to get the nonprofit Central Oregon Veterans Outreach to assist the soldier, but couldn’t make any headway, he said.
Representatives from COVO declined to say whether or not Morris was a client.
Pelly thinks, “They dropped the ball.”
At the same time, Pelly alerted campus security of a potential crisis situation.
On the Tuesday before his death, Morris walked into class smiling and seemingly in a better mood. Pelly worried how he would fare over the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend. A massive snowstorm shut down the campus Wednesday, and it was closed for the holiday Thursday and Friday.
Tuesday was the last day Pelly saw Morris alive.
Morris was a straight-A student and a “phenomenal individual,” Pelly said. He knew cars so well, he would often help other students in class. COCC is giving Morris’ family an honorary diploma, as he was in good standing and had nearly finished the requirements for the degree.
Like many of the people in Morris’ life, Pelly is now constantly wondering what he could have done differently. Should he have driven him to Portland to get help there? Should he have taken him into his home?
“Everybody was just a little bit too late,” he said. “I’ve beat myself up, because what more could I have done? I know ultimately it was his decision to pull the trigger, but what could we have done?”
‘Just a good boy’
Despite the crushing feeling that it was too late for him, there were signs Morris still held a glimmer of hope things could turn around.
He was still doing his homework, as evidenced by completed assignments in his backpack, said Boyd, his mother. Going through some of his papers, Boyd found the one that listed his appointment scheduled for Jan. 11 at the VA’s outpatient clinic in Bend. Wilson, his grandma, said he talked about getting a dog to help with his PTSD.
Apart from the risky behaviors, PTSD tends to show up in younger veterans as a tendency to isolate, to pull back emotionally, Sardo said. Sometimes that’s done by getting angry or being irritable so others won’t want to be around the person.
“We teach them how to explode, how to be angry in the military, how to be aggressive,” Sardo said, “and it’s very adaptive there. When they come home, sometimes when they’re struggling with stuff and they get that way, people leave them alone, which unfortunately kind of reinforces the behavior.”
Wilson said there were nights when he would withdraw to his room alone. And his mother said there was a time he got in a shouting match with a stranger over a parking spot.
But he reached out, too. Some nights, unable to sleep, he would sit on his grandma’s bed and talk about what was on his mind. One night, he confided, “‘If I have to go to jail, I’ll kill myself.’”
The last thing he said to his mother, Boyd said, was, “‘Mom, I am stone-cold crazy, and I drink a lot.’”
If there’s one thing Wilson wants people to know about her grandson, it’s that he had a good heart. He was clever. He wrote music, played guitar and the keyboard.
“He was always, always friendly,” she said. “Always smiling. He was just a good boy.”
Ultimately Boyd wants people to know that her son was not just the vandal some have made him out to be.
“I want him to be remembered as the honored sergeant that he was, as the good boy that he was,” she said, “and the troubled, troubled man that he had become.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0304,