Gene Morrissey '64 Leads With a Healing Mission

Gene Morrissey '64 Leads With a Healing Mission

Gene Morrissey '64 remembers the day in 1966 when he received his draft letter from the U.S. Army in the mail. It wasn’t unexpected — the Vietnam War was in its eleventh year, and Morrissey had taken time off as a student from Stanford University — but that didn’t soften his reaction. 

“It’s the dreaded letter,” he says, pausing for a moment. “I knew that by losing my student status, I opted to let myself be drafted. But when the note shows up, you sort of get a lump in your throat because now it’s real.”

Just 20 years old, Morrissey was entering an unpredictable, and publicly controversial, combat situation. Though at the time he couldn’t predict what the full impact of the experience would be, he would soon learn about lasting physical and emotional scars — but also unexplainably strong bonds that would carry throughout each chapter of his life.  

After basic training, Morrissey applied to and was accepted into Officer Candidate School (OCS), a rigorous six-month training program. “A very big component of OCS is using physical things to prepare you mentally — to provide you with the mental toughness and also the confidence for boots-on-the-ground leaders. You know you’re as ready as you can be.”

He was commissioned a second lieutenant, Infantry, and in November 1968, assigned to his post in Vietnam as a rifle platoon leader. But it was just two months later, on a day when a strong breeze prevented him and his platoon from hearing an incoming enemy mortar attack, that Morrissey’s tour was cut short. Having sustained substantial physical injuries, he spent the next five months in hospitals, where he got some life-changing news about his recovery. 

“One of my surgeons told me that I would probably never walk normally again, and for sure would never run,” Morrissey recalls. But what the surgeon didn’t account for was the level of perseverance that he learned during his military service. “During my training and active duty, I developed a competitive spirit that compelled me to focus on tasks at hand. I set my mind to proving my surgeon wrong, and a few years later, I was running 10Ks.”

Enlisting a strategy

The kind of mental toughness Morrissey relied on to change the trajectory of his physical recovery is also what led him to decide to leave the army.

“While in the hospital, I realized that a gimpy infantry officer would not make an adequate leader in combat,” he says, clearly still emotional. “Leaving my unit so abruptly caused mixed feelings: I was happy to be out of the war but frustrated that I had let the men in my platoon down. Clear that I was not returning, I dedicated my civilian career to doing what I could to provide service members with the best equipment possible.”

In December 1969, Morrissey left active duty and transferred to the reserves, where he was promoted to captain. He returned to Stanford and completed a degree in economics then joined the corporate world working as a contracts manager in the aerospace industry.

“The transition to the corporate world was easier given that we served the military,” says Morrissey, who spent much of his career working for Lockheed Martin negotiating contracts with both the U.S. Defense Department and NASA. “But the war left me with both physical and emotional scars. Years after Vietnam, I was diagnosed with PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], but I wasn’t comfortable talking to my employer about it because I didn’t expect them to understand and didn’t want it to hurt my career — so I kept it hidden.”

Reflecting now on that choice, Morrissey knows that keeping secrets wasn’t helping his recovery. Though he is hard-pressed to identify one particular moment of clarity, things began to change — and he took control to manage his healing — when he and his wife Susie joined the Agape Center for Spiritual Living. “Some things that my new church was teaching really made sense and I could apply it to my life — including meditation and a focus on personal accountability.”

A new kind of service

It’s been 14 years since Morrissey joined his new church, and he uses meditation, yoga, and other practices to manage his PTSD. He is certified to teach iRest meditation — a technique designed specifically for veterans and first responders and leads sessions at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas, Dallas. He also completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training and leads sessions of iRest and yoga at the Dallas Police Department and several veteran organizations including the Warrior Spirit Project, where he serves on the board of directors as secretary and as a community engagement ambassador. 

Gene Morrissey practicing yoga at the Warrior Spirit Project.

 

“I struggled for years and am now very much in charge of my PTS symptoms,” Morrissey says, purposely leaving off the “D” in the acronym. “In the military community, we do not view Post Traumatic Stress [PTS] as a disorder, but as an injury receptive to healing. Our programs focus on long-term resilience and take a holistic, evidence-inspired approach to facilitate healing and post-traumatic growth for anybody with stressful experiences or trauma.” 

A big part of his healing is focused on helping others, particularly fellow veterans. “Community service to others is my therapy,” Morrissey says, sharing a specific example. “MVP, Merging Vets and Players, is a nonprofit that’s a community of combat veterans and former professional athletes. We meet weekly, work out together, then sit around and talk.”

Creating that sense of camaraderie and community, according to Morrissey, can be life-changing. “When you serve in the military, there is a bond that occurs between soldiers in a war. You’re very often structured so that you have a battle buddy, and you take care of him, and he takes care of you. It’s a deep bond that is nearly impossible to explain unless you’ve served. MVP aims to help recreate that bond among its members — and they are remarkably successful at doing that.”

And though veterans and professional athletes might seem an unlikely pairing, Morrissey explains the shared experiences. “When either group of people takes off the uniform, they also take off that structured lifestyle, the elaborate system of support, and that environment of personal responsibility. It all falls away and they're just left to flop around on the deck of a civilian society that they are not well prepared for.”

To round out his affinity for natural elements of healing, Morrissey is a certified Texas master gardener. He developed a therapeutic horticulture program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Dallas and built community gardens at local schools. 

In addition to being inspired by the opportunity to positively impact himself and others, Morrissey’s motivation for discovering innovative healing methods ties back to his time at Govs. 

“I was raised by a single mom, so I went to Govs in large part to get more of a male influence in my life,” says Morrissey, whose father passed away accidentally when Morrissey was an infant. It was thanks to an educational fund set up by a family member — whose son Tad Akins '58 had graduated from Govs — that Morrissey was able to attend Govs. “My mentors include Tom Mercer P'61,'64, Buster (Howard) Navins '31 — really, all the faculty inspired a love for learning. Govs was a formative experience.”

This year, Morrissey will return to Govs to celebrate his 60th-year reunion. And amid a lifetime of cultivating soil and souls are the seeds that Morrissey has sowed closest to home. “Best of all,” he says when reflecting on his life’s accomplishments, “I’ve been married to my wife Susie for 35 years, raised a son, and have two granddaughters.”


Gene Morrissey invites everyone to reach out to him to learn more about his work or get involved: gene@warriorspiritproject.org