Fulfilling a promise
Back then, he responded to calls and provided security on an Air Force base in Okinawa. Today, as commander of the Oregon Department of the American Legion, he’s helping make sure veterans get their full due.
“The American Legion is constantly on guard, protecting veterans throughout the nation,” Morris said. “We want to make sure vets get treated right and get the proper care they deserve.”
He stands by the four pillars of the organization, which was founded in 1919: Strong national security; mentoring youth; patriotism and honor; and taking care of veterans.
“It’s a commitment you make when you join,” he said. “You promise yourself you will support your fellow vets every way you can.”
He credits the American Legion for making a difference in his own life.
“It’s shown me, as a vet, that someone cared about me and my service and commitment,” he said. “And it’s given me personal satisfaction from being able to assist veterans, comrades, families and children.”
As the 2013-14 state commander, Morris devotes a huge amount of time to his American Legion duties.
Fortunately, he said, his wife of 47 years, Marie, is very supportive. So are his daughter, Aedee Jackson of McMinnville, his son, Royce Aguilar of Corvallis, and his four grandchildren.
“I’m a husband, father and grandfather, and I’m in the American Legion,” he said. “And it’s worth every minute.”
Morris grew up in North Santiam, a wide spot on the road near Stayton. His father, Army veteran Roy Morris, ran the local grocery store.
His dad was a “no free lunch” kind of guy, he said. So when Mike finished Cascade High School school, his father expected him to do something with his life — go to college, keep working in the store or pick a branch of the military.
Morris chose the Air Force, entering on the buddy system with two high school friends. Soon he was off to Lackland Air Force Base for basic training.
“I was a big fella them,” he said. “I didn’t know if I’d survive it.”
But the hard training got him into shape, enabling him to drop from 235 to a muscular 185. “It was challenging, but I guess it was good for myself,” he said.
Since he had always been interested in law enforcement, he chose military policing as his specialty. His two buddies went other directions, so they didn’t see each other again for four years.
He stayed at Lackland for air police school. Then he was off to Okinawa — a long way from home for an 18-year-old.
“When you’re that age, everything is new, everything is an adventure,” he said. “Then realism sets in.”
Okinawa is an island 10 miles wide and 65 miles long, and that would be his whole world for 18 months. At the start of his tour there, he said, “It was a real culture shock.”
Away from home, and at least potentially in danger, “The service becomes your mother, father, brother and sister,” Morris said. “You’re dependent on it to take care of you.
“As an enlistee, you gave an oath to protect the U.S. and its citizens, even if that means death. And the government gave you a commitment that it would take care of you.”
He was homesick at times. But there were good moments, too.
He made friends and sometimes met people from Oregon, with whom he enjoyed reminiscing. He took pride in doing his job, which consisted of enforcing the uniform code of military justice.
Morris was next posted to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. It was quit a contrast to tropical Okinawa, he said, recalling how temperatures could fall to 20 below.
When his stint was up, Morris returned to Oregon.
He figured four years as an air policeman would give him a leg up when looking for civilian law enforcement jobs. But an interviewer in Polk County, where he applied for a job with the sheriff’s office, set him straight.
“They wanted two years experience. I had four in the military, but they considered that no experience — no civilian experience,” he said.
Today’s returning veterans often face the same hurdle, regardless of their field, he said. And that’s something the American Legion is fighting to change.
Morris was luckier when he applied in McMinnville. Chief Wayne Lofton and Assistant Chief Ken Gudeman — an Air Force vet who later would become chief — were more understanding.
“The state and city law are a bit different than military,” he said, “and the process of handling suspects is a bit different.” But he said they helped him make the transition.
In 1968, McMinnville was much smaller than it is today, with only about 8,000 residents. The police department was smaller, as well, so many times, Morris was the only officer on duty at night.
In those days, he and other officers would walk Third Street, checking doors to make sure businesses were secure. “We had a billy club and a flashlight and a gun,” he said.
Sometimes, he said, he entered dark buildings or other places in “scare mode.”
“It’s not a crime to be scared,” he said. “It keeps you alive.”
Morris spent 10 years with the McMinnville police, earning an associate’s degree in law enforcement from Chemeketa Community College along the way. But after his daughter was born, he decided to switch careers.
He joined Silvercrest manufactured housing in Woodburn. Commuting from his home in McMinnville, he spent 23 years with the company, mostly in management.
He later traveled to reservation land in Oregon and Washington, selling housing as an independent contractor.
Then he was offered a one-year position as director of five departments at Hillside Retirement Communities. He ended up spending four years there before retiring for good three years ago.
Retiring gave Morris more time to devote to the American Legion.
He joined the organization 25 years ago, but it’s been part of his life far longer. “I grew up in a Legion family,” he said, as his dad was a member.
He served as commander of McMinnville’s Post 21 for six years. He was elected district commander, then started moving through the state offices.
He was sworn in as 2013-14 state commander last June at the American Legion convention held in Newport.
His term will end this June, but he will remain on the state executive board and continue to play a role as past department commander. He’ll also be working on the 2015 convention, which will be held in McMinnville.
As state commander, Morris is responsible for overseeing all Legion posts in Oregon and making sure they all keep on the same course. All need to be upholding the four pillars of the Legion and making sure no veteran is overlooked, he said.
They also need to be advocating for veterans and patriotism locally and, as a whole organization, nationally. The more veterans who join, the stronger their voice in Congress will be, he said.
He has been visiting posts all over the state — Florence, Medford, Ontario, Portland and many other cities, although he hasn’t yet hit all 120.
A Legion hall, whether it’s Post 21 in McMinnville or one in a far-flung corner of the state, is like a second home to him.
“Our posts are sanctuaries for veterans,” he said. “There’s no rank among us there. We’re all the same.”
Morris said he’s enjoyed getting to know many of the state’s 18,900 members. He wants that number to get bigger, though.
Oregon has about 237,000 veterans who served during wartime, making them eligible to join the American Legion. With fewer than 10 percent already signed up, the organization has plenty room to grow, he said.
The challenges, Morris said, are spreading the word about the Legion and the good it does for veterans and the community, then getting veterans to become active members.
“We especially need to get the young veterans to join,” he said. “We have to show them compassion and show them we’re there to support the family network.”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THE AMERICAN LEGION
The American Legion is an organization made up of veterans who have served in wartime.
Formed in 1919, it works to help veterans, young people and the community and to promote patriotism.
Locals posts are the center of numerous activities and programs for vets and their families. The Legion provides food baskets to needy families during the holidays, feeds vets on Veterans Day and performs other community service.
Nationally, Legion members support American Red Cross blood drives; youth programs such as the Boy Scouts, American Legion baseball and Boys State, a program that teaches teens about government; Operation Wounded Warriors, which helps veterans who are ill or disabled; and the Legion National Emergency Fund, which helps veterans who are victims of natural disasters. The national organization also lobbies for veterans causes, such as the G.I. Bill and full funding for veterans’ hospitals.
All of the money the Legion raises for its programs goes directly to the cause, said Mike Morris of McMinnville, state commander and a former commander of local Post 21. “We’re all volunteers,” he said; there is no paid leader or any other paid position.
The Legion also has several related organizations, including Legion Riders, in which Morris rides his motorcycle; Sons of the American Legion; and the American Legion Auxiliary for spouses.