FORT KNOX, Ky. –
Foxholes, chocolate and cigarettes. That is what Tessa Morris remembers about her first Army conversation with her grandpa.
She was in the sixth grade, and her homework assignment was to interview a veteran. Her mother’s father, Robert Harris, was a medic with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, nearly a half-century before Morris was born.
Harris told his granddaughter about being a ski trooper in Italy. All the training he did before he got there, and how the foxhole rations of his generation included a bar of chocolate and a pack of cigarettes. What he didn’t mention was his Purple Heart, or getting shot.
“He didn’t really talk about what happened to him over there,” Morris said in mid-January, less than a week before she left for Army basic training.
Harris went to war on skis when it was still a “wild idea,” and he was in the Italian campaign that made the 10th Mountain Division famous for getting the job done. He played a big part in why his generation came to be known as the greatest.
There’s so much more to why he was the greatest to Morris.
Ski Boot Baby
Harris was the grandfather who returned from the war and only wanted something better for his children and his children’s children.
Harris was the one who, with his wife, Madeline, while in their 70s, took Morris on a hike near a waterfall when she was 4. It’s her earliest memory of him. She remembers asking for a treat. She remembers “he always had these pretty funny remarks” for such an occasion.
“Oh,” her grandfather said to her, “here’s a nut, for a little nut.”
Harris was there when Morris was 6 and the family went skiing in Idaho. There was a brand new ski lift there named Stella.
“I just wanted to go on Stella all day,” Morris said. “So that is what my grandfather and I did.”
Harris died in 2009. He won’t be there in April when Morris graduates basic combat training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and begins following in his bootsteps as a combat medic. Harris’ 97-year-old widow, however, knows her granddaughter will be caring for Soldiers and carrying her late husband’s torch.
Morris also told Madeline that she will start her medic tour at Fort Polk, Louisiana, home of a 10th Mountain Division combat team.
“She actually lit up pretty big,” Morris said, the mention of 10th Mountain reversing Madeline’s visible gloom at the thoughts of swamps and alligators in Louisiana.
Morris will report to Polk with an advanced promotion to the rank of specialist because she enlisted under a program that rewards Future Soldiers for bringing needed skills into the Army. She qualified for it because of the emergency care credentials she carried as a ski patrol director when she enlisted.
In fact, she said the Army Civilian Acquired Skills Program is a big reason she chose the Army over the other services, because “it’s pretty cool” that she could be guaranteed to be a medic like her grandfather. “Even better if (it) gets (her) on with the 10th Mountain Division,” she added with careful optimism.
Morris’ ski patrol adventure started in high school. She was 16 when she heard her sister’s friend talk about volunteering to patrol on weekends just outside of Wenatchee, Washington.
“I want to do that,” she emphatically said to herself.
Morris wasn’t just born to ski. She practically arrived in the world with ski boots fastened and ready. Skiing is so in the Morris blood that her mother and older sister wanted in when she readied for patrol training after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Well, if you do that, I want to do it,” Morris’ sister insisted to her and her mother.
So the seed that was planted on an Italian mountain range, and nurtured on Stella’s mechanical arms in Idaho, began to bloom as Morris was finishing high school. She continued patrolling after graduation.
Fire in the Snow
By 21, Morris was carrying dynamite up a mountain and blowing up the snow, a little-known patroller responsibility referred to as “avalanche mitigation.”
By 23, Morris was named ski patrol director. Friend and mentor Gil Eggleston remembers that some older patrollers didn’t like working for someone so young. But skiing wasn’t the only thing she was born to do, they discovered. Leadership, while helping others in the snow on the side of mountains, is also in her DNA.
“She held the line,” Eggleston said. “She told them, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’”
Eggleston was an assistant chief when Morris was a teenager and showed up at his fire district to volunteer as an emergency medical technician. Eggleston could tell she was not a typical teen.
“I knew she was fairly squared away,” he said.
Having it together on the outside was easy for Morris. But on the inside, just prior to meeting Eggleston, life as a late teen was not so tidy. Like most her age, she was trying to figure it all out. Where she belonged.
“I need to do something and go to college,” she heard the world telling her when she graduated high school. That something seemed obvious. After all, caring for others was in her DNA.
“I think I want to be a doctor,” she told her parents when she was a child, “or a veterinarian, because I like animals.”
Morris signed up for a full semester of nursing classes. Becoming a nurse seemed the “solid job option,” she told herself.
“I think I fell into the trap that most 18 year olds fall into,” she said.
Life was about to pull her from that trap. It would not be a pain-free escape. It would be the word no child wants a parent to say. Divorce.
“That was a shock to the system,” she said, “I didn’t even know where I would be living.”
She went and asked for the nursing school money back. There was this other class she heard about. An EMT class. A “one-month, intensive out-in-the-woods class.” It changed her life.
“Okay, I’m not going to nursing school,” she told herself when she finished. “I’m way more interested in being an EMT and being outside.”
Hotshots and Helicopters
Eggleston saw the fire inside Morris. Where better for her to channel it than the volunteer fire academy? He signed her up. That’s where she met Monica Morin, one of the very few females in a class of 30 or more.
“She was very mature for her age,” Morin, who was already in her mid-20s, remembered thinking about her first impression of Morris.
The alphabet rule meant the M&M sisters would be mentioned together often. And it turned out their main competition was each other. Morris graduated first in the class. Morin second. They’ve been best friends ever since.
Morin shares Morris’ addiction to adventure, though Morin said she’s settled down now with a “stable job” helping to manage what Morris calls the wildest river in the country. Morris claims she has always lived vicariously through Morin’s exploits, especially those in the frontier of Alaska, rubbing elbows with dog mushers and the like.
Morin’s appreciation for Morris’ accomplishments is just as strong. Morris “thrives in a male-dominated environment,” Morin said. There’s something special in Morris’ DNA.
“People follow her,” Morin said. “But she doesn’t lead with a strong hand. She leads by example, quietly. She won’t make a knee-jerk reaction.”
It was Eggleston who asked Morris if she ever thought about testing her leadership in wildland firefighting. Eggleston is now retired from 35 years of fighting wildland fires, including time with aerial fighting in Alaska.
Morris didn’t immediately warm to Eggleston’s idea. Most calls to her local fire station were actually ambulance calls. EMT was more her thing. “Why would I ever want to do that?” Morris remembered thinking.
Eggleston knew there was more fire in her than she realized. Literally. He made some calls, found out what was available. He told her to give it a try with a temporary wildlands job at the state level. She did. And she never looked back.
“I definitely caught the (fire) bug after that,” she said.
Morris became a woman designed for two seasons: fire and snow. Firefighter during warm months and ski patrol director the rest of the time. She did take a few summers off to travel, but that didn’t stick.
“I found myself sitting on the beach thinking about firefighting,” she said.
It turned out skiing wasn’t the only thing in Morris’ blood. It was more of a mixture. Veins full of fire and ice. She took to fighting fires like she took to snow. All in.
There was the Hotshots, the special forces of firefighting. Sign me up, Morris said. There was the Helitack crew, those who went behind fire lines rappelling down from helicopters. Morris raised her hand for that, too.
Eggleston calls Hotshots and rappellers “the cream of the crop.” His long resume includes seasons of leading Hotshots. He’s always been tight within the fire community. He’s never heard anything but good comments about Morris.
“They all respect Tessa,” Eggleston said. “She’s well liked.”
Called to Serve
It was all the rappelling, and the avalanche mitigation, and the fires, and the adventures “in the public service realm” that kept the Army enlistment idea stuffed to the back of Morris’ brain. That’s what she assumes.
Morris isn’t sure when it surfaced really. She guesses when she was 20 or 21, near the time she started carrying dynamite up mountainsides. She knows it began to burn more a few years later. That’s when she began “spinning (her) wheels” about all the ramifications of enlisting.
“It’s just something I thought about every day,” Morris said.
She knew her civilian life wasn’t a far cry from what it could look like in the military. But joining the Army meant leaving home for a long time. And big decisions are never so simple. She loved her family too much to look at it that way.
Her grandmother was in her 90s and Morris worried heavily about leaving her. At the same time, leaving was a big part of why she yearned for the Army. She had traveled a lot but she never actually lived anywhere outside Washington. She felt a growing need to “force (herself) out of her comfort zone,” she said.
She also knew Madeline and the rest of the family would not be too keen on the Army idea. To be honest, she didn’t think her grandfather would have liked it either.
“That older generation survived the depression,” Morris said. “I’m not sure they understand why someone would go out of their way to make life hard.”
But that’s just what happened. Life. It showed up again to change Morris’ course in a big way.
She was sitting in her ski patrol office in late 2018. The phone rang. It was her mother. A Soldier was killed the night before in Afghanistan. He was part of a family Morris grew up with. It was the Soldier’s brother, her sister’s close friend, who Morris heard talking about volunteer ski patrolling when she was 16.
“Oh no, oh man,” she uttered, the sudden deep sadness for the Soldier’s family like an avalanche coming down the mountain and plowing the office over with her in it.
It was just after Thanksgiving. It would be a tough holiday season. “I was mostly concerned for the family,” Morris remembered. “The whole thing was really hard.”
The fallen Soldier’s family asked Morris’ seventh-grade English teacher, Andrea Brixey, to speak at the funeral. Brixey asked Morris to come over the night before to listen to what Brixey prepared to say.
Brixey was paid to teach others how to use language. Her carefully crafted words poured over Morris and dripped down into her soul, the drops waking a sleeping reflection pool of Morris’ own life. She looked down deep and saw something she had been thinking about constantly for years.
She knew it must seem strange -- that a fallen Soldier’s funeral would make someone want to join the Army even more. But death makes truth alive. It puts life in your face whether you like it or not.
“Do you think he was one of the few lucky ones who knew what he wanted?” Morris somberly asked Brixey. “He was able to live a very authentic life because he knew what he wanted to be, while the rest of us say, ‘I’m just going where the wind takes me.’”
Brixey repeated the eulogy the next day in front of hundreds of people. There was no doubt this time. Hearing the words again “drove it home,” Morris said.
Making the Leap
It was early 2019 when Sgt. 1st Class John Shugart first saw Morris walk into his East Wenatchee Recruiting Station. She was 27 years old, and he quickly learned she was different than most who came seeking information.
Morris had not one, but two careers. She had a house, a house she adored and really wanted to keep. Nor did she want to part with Bowie, the cat with different colored eyes she rescued from the pound.
On the surface, Shugart saw that Morris “didn’t need the Army by any means.” But he’d seen that before. A few times a year, he guessed, Shugart comes across the Tessas of recruiting.
“They want something more,” Shugart said. “They tell themselves, ‘I either need to do something or stay content with where I’m at.’”
Morris eventually developed plans for renting her house and having someone watch Bowie until she could take him on her Army journey. But what she really needed was to put time between the funeral and telling her family she would be a Soldier. She needed the Army not to be a knee-jerk reaction.
“I’ll let you know,” she told Shugart.
Morris talked to her ski boss about joining the Army. “You know, I wish I had done that when I was younger,” he told her. She bounced the idea off her other mentors.
“Every single one of them had the same reply,” Morris said.
She went back to Shugart with more questions in the summer of 2019. Slowly, she prepared to make the leap. She studied for the military’s vocational aptitude test.
“She crushed (it),” Shugart said, her score letting her pick her Army job. Combat medic, let’s go, she told him.
But then COVID hit, and training slots for medics were put on hold. Be back after the summer, she told Shugart, after she was done fighting fires.
Morris was with her family and friends for the holidays before leaving for basic training in January. Her last week was a whirlwind of goodbye visits.
Two days before leaving, she was practicing with a sock to keep her hair up, an old trick women use to meet Army grooming standards. She was more worried about having to deal with “damn bobby pins coming out” than screaming drill sergeants or boot camp horror stories.
Besides, why worry about that? Morris was all in. The Army was calling her to serve. It was in her DNA.
Jason Schaap is a writer for U.S. Army Recruiting Command.