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Iraq put his life on the trigger

A soldier returns with post-traumatic stress and a deadly game he plays under the influence. Soon, he's on trial for murder.

May 24, 2008|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BARDWELL, KY. — When Cody Alexander Morris returned from the war last fall, he carried home a burden -- a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder -- and a new way of playing with guns.

The gun game was called "Do You Trust Me?" Morris, 19, learned it from his Kentucky National Guard buddies in Iraq.

He taught the game to his roommates: best friend and fellow guardsman Casey Lee Hall, 18, and a 16-year-old cousin, Cory Adams. The young men would point unloaded handguns at each other's heads, ask "Do you trust me?" and pull the trigger.

Sometimes the guns came out while the teenagers drank alcohol, smoked marijuana and played violent video games. They called each other CWB, for "crazy white boy," and had those three words tattooed on their necks.

"It fit us pretty good," Morris said recently, "'cause we are crazy white boys. We were potheads -- we'd just drink and smoke . . . and play-fight."

But the carousing masked Morris' troubled state. His PTSD was so severe, his friends said, that he couldn't sleep. He had terrifying visions of people he had killed in combat.

Morris showed his friends horrific photos from Iraq -- "people with their heads blowed off . . . guts ripped out on barbed wire . . . bullet holes in every piece of body," said a friend, Dustin Newton.

Sometimes, friends said, Morris would show the photos and laugh.

At night, Morris slept with a loaded 9-millimeter Ruger semiautomatic handgun under his mattress. His mother bought the gun for him because he was two years shy of being able to buy it legally.

That gun was in Morris' hand when it went off on the night of Oct. 18, killing Hall with a perfectly placed shot between his eyes.

Cody Morris is small and nimble -- 5 foot 6 and 140 pounds. He refers to himself as "not a real smart guy." He has a severe learning disability and reads below the eighth-grade level. He failed fourth grade and repeated ninth grade before dropping out.

At 15, he was sent to a military-themed reform school for standing lookout while a friend robbed a store. He was 17 when he earned a GED.

Morris remembers a turbulent upbringing in Bardwell, where he lived in a trailer with a blended family. (He has a sister, two half-sisters, two half-brothers and three stepsisters.) One Christmas, he said, his stepfather smashed the gifts under the tree and wrote "slut" on a wall with Miracle Whip after a fight with Morris' mother.

Morris was eager to leave Bardwell, population 793, a speck in the road in far-western rural Kentucky, the county seat in a county with just one stoplight. Two prominent features downtown are a large Confederate flag and a "God Bless Our Troops" sign.

Morris decided to follow his older sister, Larissa Roach, into the Guard. He was underage, so his mother signed him up.

"I wanted him out of this town," said his mother, Bonnie Fernandez, citing a lack of opportunities.

Morris persuaded Hall -- his best friend since fourth grade -- to join the Guard with him. Hall's mother enlisted him two days before he turned 17.

Morris seemed to find a home in the military, with its codes of honor and discipline. In October 2006, he was sent to war. He turned 18 the day he landed in Iraq.

Morris said his base near Baghdad was attacked almost daily. He described shooting an insurgent in the chest and seeing his face as he died. He spoke of seeing bodies floating in a canal and stepping on human brains during a house raid.

His team leader noticed disturbing changes in his personality and persuaded him to see a military psychiatrist, who diagnosed PTSD, Morris said.

"She cracked me open," he said. "I let it all out. I was crying. I had been holding it all in. . . . She really helped me."

About 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD or major depression, a Rand Corp. study found. Only a small percentage have committed violent crimes. The veterans receive various levels of treatment -- or no treatment at all in half the cases, according to Rand.

Back home, Morris stopped taking the sedative prescribed in Iraq. He was not seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist. He passed the time getting high, showing off his gun and playing video games.

Morris said he heard screams in his sleep and suffered flashbacks that made him feel he was "fixing to die." He was afraid to ride in cars because he thought other drivers were plotting to ram him with explosives. He avoided soda cans because opening them produced a fizzy noise that sounded like a bullet passing overhead.

Even so, he told people he was leaving soon for Ft. Benning, Ga., to apply for Special Forces training. He said he wanted to return to Iraq.

He loved the military, and he loved his gun; he said it felt natural to carry it for protection. "Your weapon is your body," he told police. Gordon Williams, a psychologist who later examined Morris, said the gun had become "part of his persona."

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