From southeast Utah to West Point
OUT OF THE BLUES
by Maggie Boyle Judi
In the Spring of 1994, Chris Morrell was a graduate of Monticello High School, and like most seniors in high school, eager to get out of the little town he’d always called home.
Being one in a handful of non LDS-kids, Morrell wasn’t treated poorly, but he says, “I always felt different.”
He knew he wanted to move away and find something he could wholeheartedly belong to, and perhaps get a college education, but a way to pay for an expensive degree seemed a little beyond his grasp.
He decided to move with his brother in Grand Junction and soon found a job at the local Wal-Mart. Desert Storm had just concluded and among Morrell’s coworkers were two veterans of the 1990s war. The pair told him about the GI Bill and their positive experiences in the military.
Morrell recalls working a graveyard shift one night when he had an epiphany, “I remember one night in December 1994. I was stocking little cans of dog food on the shelf and realized that there is no future in this for me. This is definitely not what I needed to do with my life.”
The next morning when he got off work, Morrell headed straight to the recruiters office and, as he puts it, “enlisted on a whim.”
He was assigned to Fort Knox, KY and cavalry scout basic training. When he showed up to the in-processing office there, Morrell was given an Army aptitude test.
“Through that process,” he says, “they pulled four or five of us out of a group of 500 and said, ‘You need to come with us.’”
What Morrell has never learned exactly is what made his test stand apart from so many others. The small group of enlisted men were taken to a room and told that their aptitude tests showed impressive promise.
And then the men where shown a video about West Point. At the time, says Morrell, “I didn’t even know what West Point was.”
But from the video he knew it would mean college paid for, and therefore the whole point of enlisting in the first place would be a means to and end of his goal to go to college.
“So,” he says, with a shrug and a grateful expression in his voice, “Well… sure!”
The recruiters gave him an application and in 15 minutes or so Chris Morrell had applied to West Point, a process which most candidates spend years doing.
Ten weeks later, Chris Morrell was summoned to his drill sergeant’s office. “It was a harrowing experience,” he recalls, “because I get called into the drill sergeants office (he says this with great emphasis, so I get the idea you don’t want to ever have to visit the drill sergeant’s office) and every drill sergeant from the company – which is a group of people you NEVER see together and a group of people you NEVER WANT to see together – are all waiting in the room for me.
“The commander and first sergeant are all in this office and I’m just thinking to myself… ‘What did I do? What did I do that has gotten me this kind of attention!’”
But as it turned out, this time a trip to the drill sergeant’s office was a good thing. A VERY good thing.
The company commander was a graduate of West Point and therefore wanted to tell Pvt. Chris Morrell that he was the recipient of a very rare set of circumstances, one in which West Point sought OUT a candidate and accepted an enlisted soldier.
And so with a lot of pomp and circumstance, Chris Morrell found out that he had been accepted to the most prestigious of military schools, the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Morrell finished basic and headed to Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey to the United States Military Academy Preparatory School. He spent a year there and, for the first time, was really challenged academically. He flourished and graduated 15th out of a class of 130 cadet candidates.
He entered West Point in the Fall of 1996 and spent the next four years soaking up everything the academy had to give. The main thing he says he learned from that time was this, “I found this desire to teach. As a teacher, I can teach a hundred cadets a year and help them become better. In turn, those cadets are commissioned and spread throughout the Army, making it better and more capable.”
Morrell remembers fondly his time spent in the company of two teachers at MHS. Mr. Gordon Reeve gave him challenges in the academic realm and always believed in his abilities.
Morrell spent a couple years as a teacher’s aid for Mr. Terry Eardley, and he says, gained the trust of the science and technology teacher.
In the early 1990’s, MHS began installing and implementing a brand new and expensive computer lab.
Says Morrell of Mr. Eardley, “He gave me free rein to figure it out and make it all work. Had he not trusted me to not break anything, I don’t know that I would’ve followed the same path that I did.”
Morrell received a Bachelor’s degree from West Point in computer science. He also met and married his wife, Leslie Willson, and together they drove off to his first assignment at Ft. Richardson, Alaska in 2000 as a Second Lt. in the Signal Corps.
From there, his career has been a whirlwind of change. He spent time in Australia and on deployment to both Afghanistan in 2005 and Kuwait in 2012. After his deployment in Afghanistan, Morrell applied to return to West Point as a teacher.
He ended being promoted to Major and completeing his Masters at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York. With his Masters in Computer Science, he was “ready to come back and teach” those bright young cadets.
Morrell spent the next four years teaching. While there, he had the opportunity to apply for an additional rotation on the West Point faculty, which would involve pursuing a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech.
On March 17, Major Chris Morrell defended his dissertation and earned his Ph.D. And a few days later, he learned that he will be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel by the end of the year.
This year, only 46 percent of Majors in his field will be awarded a promotion to LT. Colonel. In the entire army, less than two percent earn a promotion to LT. Colonel.
“It’s mind boggling to look at where I came from and the things that I’ve gone through to get to where I am,” Morrell ponders, “I know it is really a series of fortunate events to have happened for me to do what I’m doing.”
Morrell also attributes his work ethic and success to his wonderful parents, Sue and Frank Morrell. “My parents raised me to be very independent,” he chuckles as he adds, “Whether that was intentional or not, I don’t know.
“But I’ve always been very independent, we lived way out there half way between Monticello and Blanding so I spent a lot of time wandering the woods by myself learning how to be alone and how to be independent.”
That skill has helped Morrell immensely as he navigates a world that until 1994 was largely unknown to him.
The future is bright as Chris Morrell continues his 22nd year in the Military. His Ph.D. work focused on Cyber Security, and with technological warfare becoming more of the norm, you can bet the US Army will need his expertise.
He is headed back to teach at West Point for a few more years and then hopes to do research at the Army Cyber Institute, also located at West Point, for the remainder of his career.
And then, well he’ll take his wife and their three smart, beautiful, and charming kids – Avery, Mitchell, and Delilah – to the place where it seems all former SJCers like to end up... in the mountains.
Specifically the mountains of the Pacific North West. But for now, Morrell will continue to focus on his teaching.
It’s exciting,” he says, “because the cadets hang on to your every word.” They have chosen to be there, and worked so hard to be there. And their attitude is the reason Morrell continues to teach. He says they are especially bright eyed when he speaks of his time in Afghanistan and Kuwait.
“So I kind of feed off of that and I can’t help but be excited as well.”