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Lucky Soldier Keeps Defying Death, On and Off Battlefield

Afghanistan: Sgt. Roderick Morgan is back in the war zone after several wounds. One of his battered helmets is on display.

October 02, 2002|DAVID ZUCCHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DABGAY, Afghanistan — The pride of the military collection at the 82nd Airborne museum at Ft. Bragg, N.C., is the battered helmet of Sgt. Roderick Morgan. It bears a nasty dent from when Morgan was shot in the helmet by a Serbian militiaman in July 1999 and somehow survived.

Now the museum is begging Morgan for a second helmet. While serving in Afghanistan in July, Morgan was once again shot in the helmet, this time by an Afghan gunman. Once again, he survived. But this time, he held on to his damaged helmet.

Morgan was wearing the repaired helmet last week, manning a grenade launcher atop an armored Humvee in the high desert of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. He's back on duty in the war zone, and he's pretty certain his bad luck is all used up.

"I figure I'm good to go. I mean, what are the odds of getting shot in the Kevlar [helmet] three times?" Morgan said, gumming a pinch of snuff while providing cover for an 82nd Airborne Division unit.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 332 words Type of Material: Correction
Military rank--An Oct. 2 story in Section A did not include the full rank of Roderick Morgan, a member of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division who survived two near-fatal injuries. He is a sergeant first class.

Morgan's three-man crew inside the Humvee, young and eager to see action, is sticking close by the sergeant in hopes of drawing enemy fire.

"He's the magnet," said the gunner, Sgt. Neil Burt.

"Yeah," said the medic, Pfc. Kyle Nemas. "You know you'll see action with this guy."

Morgan, 35, a cheerful, tattooed country boy from Georgia, has an impressive track record of survival, both in and out of combat.

In the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, he was shot first through the hand and shoulder. Then a shot to the helmet spun him backward, away from a follow-up shot that just missed his chest. He was knocked unconscious for several hours, which is how his helmet got away from him and ended up at the museum. He later underwent shoulder and hand surgery.

In the southern Afghan city of Kandahar in July, Morgan was shot in the ankle and then the helmet by a gunman firing from a ditch, using children for cover. He underwent surgery to reconnect his Achilles tendon. The impact of the shot to the helmet fractured a bone in his neck, he said, and he still suffers from neck pain and numbness in his hands.

Morgan says his wife, Staff Sgt. Stephanie Morgan, who is based in the U.S., is learning to accept his proclivity for mayhem. When she was informed of the shot to his helmet in Kandahar, he said, her first response was: "Not again."

The dent in Morgan's helmet is still there, a narrow gully beneath the cloth covering he sewed back up. His body is a road map of scars and fractures, each with a story.

In July 1995, while training at Ft. Bragg, Morgan and the rest of his platoon were struck by lightning. "Flat-lined me," Morgan said. "Took a defibrillator to bring me back." A medic worked so furiously to save him, he said, that he fractured three of Morgan's ribs performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

In July 2001, at Ft. Benning, Ga., Morgan said, a tractor-trailer ran a red light and plowed into his Ford Ranger, pinning him under the vehicle and leaving him with a compound dislocation of his elbow and a wicked scar on his forearm.

"I guess trouble just seems to follow me," Morgan said. "All you can do is laugh about it. Everybody else does."

Some fellow members of the 82nd steer clear of Morgan, he said; others warn soldiers not to stand too close to him. The rest are placing bets on whether he'll draw enemy fire again before his tour in Afghanistan is over. With his reputation and his two Purple Hearts, he's a combination of jinx, good luck charm and guardian angel.

"My commander says he loves me to death, but he won't fly in the same aircraft with me," Morgan said.

On the other hand, he said, "These guys willing to ride in the Humvee with me will never have to prove their bravery."

His fellow soldiers honored Morgan by naming the drop zone at their local base after him: DZ Morgan. Naturally, a strap carrying the very first load of artillery shells to arrive broke, sending the rounds tumbling to earth. They didn't explode, and no one was hurt, but Morgan's reputation for skirting disaster was further embellished.

For all his wounds, Morgan says, the military is less dangerous than his previous job. He spent nine years as a professional rodeo bull rider.

One bull broke Morgan's jaw, he said, and his mouth was wired shut for weeks. Another bull punctured Morgan's lung by stomping on his ribs.

He remembers looking up from his hospital bed after his last bull-ring injury and seeing his wife, who was pregnant with their first child. "I started thinking: What kind of life is this going to be, me always getting hurt, with a baby on his way?"

So he decided right then to find a less perilous profession. He joined the Army.

Between the bull-riding and 12 years in the military, Morgan says, he has undergone surgery 11 times. He says he's lost track of the number of times he has been knocked unconscious in the arena or on the battlefield, but he figures that it's about 15 and counting.

"You know how they use cadavers to test bullets and wounds?" he said. "Well, now they have a walking cadaver."

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