Like mother, like son?
Veteran Catherine Morris speaks out against the war her son Jesse supports and may end up fighting
In a picture from her early career as a Marine, Catherine Morris plays up her toughness. In fatigues with rolled-up sleeves, she stands next to a vehicle, a slight woman with a mischievous grin, her foot resting high up on one of the vehicle’s wheels. She’s showing off, a recent graduate of basic training, unable to imagine that she’s less than a year away from motherhood and that her future son, Jesse, will grow up to support a war she ultimately opposes.
“I’ve always wanted to get pushed past my comfort zone,” said Catherine, sitting over a cafe mocha and trying to explain why she joined the Marines, even though she lacked the killer’s instinct. “I wanted to do something exciting,” she said.
During her four-year term, Catherine believes, she saw the best and the worst of military life. When she enlisted as a 19-year-old adventuress, the Marines taught her something about discipline, hard work and camaraderie, but when the single, fun-loving corporal discovered less than a year later that she was pregnant, the same Marine Corps made her suffer alone. If the contrast inspired mixed emotions, they were nothing compared with those she felt when the United States entered into Desert Storm, and Catherine, then a young mother and member of the National Guard, realized that she could be called on to fight without reservation in spite of her own increasing objections to war as a solution to any conflict.
Catherine is out of the military this time around, but she still serves, as a member of Veterans for Peace, an activist group of military vets who pursue peace and justice through nonviolence. She still has mixed emotions about the military, but she opposes this war, even though her son Jesse, on his mother’s recommendation, joined the Air Force after high school and could be sent overseas to fight.
Jesse was a little like his mother when he got out of high school. With no solid plans and an early aversion to college, he was surly with his parents, spent his mornings sleeping late and didn’t want to pay rent while living at home.
Jesse looked around at his family members, his mother who was a counselor, an aunt who was a lawyer and an uncle who was a computer engineer. Each of them made good money, he said, and each of them had started out in the military.
As a young Air Force recruit, Jesse hated all the rules that went along with training. He hated being yelled at by guys shorter than him with more rank, and he hated the transition from being a smartass to a man who could speak only when spoken to and who could go only where he was told to go.
“It will get better,” Catherine told her son when he called her, miserable after three weeks of basic training. “I swear it.”
With her history, Jesse had to believe her.
In 1982, Catherine went from an all-female training camp at Parris Island in South Carolina to Okinawa, Japan, to work in aviation operations. At that time, the Marines were still getting used to the idea of women in service. Females counted girdles, rouge and lipstick among their supplies and attended classes on how to apply makeup. In Okinawa, according to Catherine, female Marines were supposed to be these living, breathing poster girls, and in her estimation, there was one American woman to every 200 American men. This disparity contributed to many of Catherine’s greatest challenges.
After many days of nonstop hassling and sexual innuendo, Catherine sat down to a drink with another female Marine and was interrupted by a drunken soldier who came up to her table, she said, got right up into her face and started making crude sexual overtures. So, she backhanded him.
“It set off this big commotion,” said Catherine, who ended up with a 30-day “mess duty” as punishment for “being a tease.” Working without a day off in the mess hall for a month, Catherine began dating a Marine who was finishing up his one-year term. He was gone before Catherine realized she was pregnant.
The one obstetrician on base, according to Catherine, told her she was a disgrace to the Marines and that if he could, he’d have her ass kicked out. Accused of shirking duty, Catherine said, she was hospitalized with severe nausea but was pumped full of anti-food-poisoning drugs and denied all visitors. She finally managed to go stateside in her final trimester and began working alongside other soldiers who became more like her big brothers. They even visited her in the hospital once her son was born.
Though Catherine felt safer at home, she still had problems with the Marine Corps, which wouldn’t let her live on base with a baby. Needing to finance an apartment, Catherine said, she took the easiest money she could find. She became an exotic dancer, which set off another big commotion when a female captain recognized her. Because she wasn’t promoting herself as a Marine, said Catherine, and because she was dancing in “tops and bottoms,” she was allowed to continue. It helped her case, according to Catherine, that the Marines were bringing in Playboy bunnies for the officers.
“I threw that in their faces,” she said.
In 1985, Catherine finished her four years of duty. At 27, she went back to school for a degree in psychology. She paid for it with a weekend a month and two weeks in the summer in the California Army National Guard.
As a Marine, Catherine trained to protect her country, but when Desert Storm broke, she realized that she could be sent overseas to fight and die regardless of what she thought of the war. What a waste it would be, she thought, to deprive her son of a mother for a war that wasn’t even to protect American soil. But Catherine agonized over the possibility that her peers also could be called. If they were going, she wanted to go with them, to protect and support them.
“The other soldiers,” said Catherine, “were like brothers and sisters.”
She kept her own ethics quiet and realized that she was surrounded by people utterly committed to war. They didn’t question the morality of it, while Catherine thought that almost anything would be preferable to killing unjustly. Unable to hold up the peace-loving end of every argument, she soon left the National Guard, having never received orders to serve overseas.
She didn’t realize that she would have to face all the same convincing arguments 10 years later—this time with her son, Jesse.
In his graduation photo from basic training, Jesse looks intense. His eyes are solemn but direct. Well-groomed and formal in his uniform, he’s almost the direct opposite of his mother at that age—a cocky young girl wearing her Marine fatigues.
When Jesse went from basic training to a technology school, Catherine dropped everything and went down to meet him in Dallas. She got them a hotel room and immediately noticed the difference the military had made in her son.
The boy who liked to lie in bed all morning got up and showered before her. He actually asked her if she needed anything ironed, and when they discussed how to spend their afternoon, said Catherine, he suggested the arboretum for her sake.
While Jesse attended technical training courses, Catherine realized that another war was coming, and she joined Veterans for Peace. She began attending war protests, arguing that if the United States put as much brainpower and resources into finding peaceful solutions as it did in raising an excellent fighting force, it would find a way to “wage peace.” She no longer holds up her side of the argument all alone.
Thirty-three veterans make up the local chapter of Veterans for Peace, and half a dozen of them are women. Pat Driscoll, who formed the local chapter, said part of its mission is to support the troops, who sometimes receive poor treatment from the government when they return home. Calling attention to flaws in the military system has made the Veterans unpopular.
“That’s what you get,” said Driscoll, “when you interfere with someone’s fantasy.”
Like his mother and Driscoll, Jesse has seen the downside of military life.
“You always have regrets,” he said in a phone call from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. He’s now been in the Air Force for just more than a year.
“I had life real easy before,” he said. “Anything I do after this will be like a joke to me.”
Jesse used to think that he would reverse his decision to join the service if he could go backward in time, but he would do so only if he could retain all the knowledge and still know all the people he’s met through the service. Weighing everything, he thinks he made the right decision.
While Catherine protests, claiming that war dehumanizes soldiers, Jesse continues to work 12-hour shifts as an F-16 crew chief. He said he never doubts that the United States has gone to war for the right reasons.
“It should have happened sooner,” he said. The televisions on base are tuned to CNN constantly, but he and his peers don’t talk much about the war because they’re working so hard. Because Jesse’s still in training, he probably won’t be shipped overseas right away, nor will the pilots training with him.
“I see the protesters on CNN,” said Jesse. “And most of them don’t know what they’re talking about.” His mom, he feels, is an exception.
“She served,” he said. “She knows what she’s talking about. … I respect her opinion.”