The loneliest war

By late winter, the war had come home to Pickett Place.

Grenades and small bombs exploded in the living room.

Automatic weapons fire echoed off the walls.

Soldiers shouted to one another. One fell wounded.

Whitley Morton had tried to make their house a retreat, but her husband, Jayson, wouldn't let go of the Xbox.

Outside, the sun was warm and inviting, and Whitley knew the good weather wouldn’t last. She had talked about going out, perhaps taking the boys to the park.

It wasn’t going to happen.

She had gotten her hair cut and run a few errands, and when she got back, he still had the controller in his hands.

“You’ve been on this the whole time?” she asked. “It’s been five hours.”

“Really?” he said, as if it were no big deal.

She started to fix dinner for the boys.

On the refrigerator door, she kept a prayer:

Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that you and I together can’t handle.

But now she felt alone and didn’t know who to turn to. She had heard that relationships don’t last when a soldier comes home wounded. She had heard stories about PTSD.

She called Eli to the table and put Silas in his high chair. Then she slumped to the floor and started to cry like a little girl.

Jayson Morton plays with his sons, Eli, 6, center, and Silas, 3, at their home in March. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Jayson flinched.

Ping. Ping.

What was that?

Ping. Ping. Ping.

Someone shooting at us?

In the roar of the Blackhawk’s twin engines, he couldn’t be sure what he was hearing.

His eyes darted from the mountains of Afghanistan to his best friend, Sgt. 1st Class Omar Forde, who was sitting across from him in the back of the helicopter. Also on board were four members of the flight crew and Forde’s friend, Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams.

Jayson thought he saw something in their expressions. A tingling swept through his body.

(Doug Stevens / Los Angeles Times)


What the hell?

The Blackhawk rocked and shook.

Forde threw out his arms, eyes wide.

Then Jayson saw smoke from the tail rotor, a thick black-and-white plume trailing into the blue sky.

Below, the mountain ridge dropped off like a steep roof; no place to land.

He sucked in his breath and with it the stink of diesel and the menthol tinge of cold altitudes, more than 9,500 feet in the middle of December.

Forde would know what to do. He had survived plenty of explosions riding in armored vehicles in Iraq.

But a Blackhawk isn’t an armored vehicle. It’s a tin can, and this one seemed to hang motionless, frozen between heaven and Earth.

The bird began to shake. Then it started a slow spin that grew faster as the bottom dropped out.

Nothing can salvage this, Jayson thought.

They were the Archangels, flying with the Black Knights, an assault helicopter company with the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.

They had met at Ft. Riley, Kan., in October 2012.

Just out of basic training, Jayson walked into headquarters and stood nervously at parade rest, wanting to make a good impression on his new boss.

Forde told him to relax. That’s how it was with him: Rank mattered less than forging a bond.

Forde was almost four years older and seemed to Jayson the perfect soldier.

Over the months, the men grew close. Both were raised by their mothers, with money tight. Both married young. Each had two little boys.

They were deployed to Afghanistan in August 2013 and assigned to headquarters at the Kandahar Airfield — Candyland, as it was known.

Pfc. Jayson Morton and Sgt. 1st Class Omar Forde on Nov. 10, 2013, at Forward Operating Base Apache, Afghanistan. (Kathleen Samsey / U.S. Army)

Jayson was a cubicle jockey in charge of compiling statistics for weekly briefings, a boring job made easier by Forde’s company.

Once they spent all day talking about music, and Forde gushed about Ja Rule. Jayson didn’t believe it. He thought the rapper had a terrible voice, and when Forde got all sentimental over Whitney Houston’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” Jayson teased that it was more the singer than the song that he really liked.

A veteran of two deployments in Iraq, Forde had worked on a road clearance crew but switched to electronic warfare, believing it safer than clearing IEDs from convoy routes.

He was responsible for jamming enemy communications in the battlefield, and for some of these missions, he tapped Jayson.

To Jayson, who considered himself a ground-pounder ill-suited for desk work, nothing topped walking across the airfield toward the flight line of helicopters.

Once off the ground, Afghanistan came into view, no more Candyland with its TGI Friday’s and KFC.

Jayson felt safe in a Blackhawk, and weeks before deployment he had been so excited that friends reminded him war wasn’t like “Call of Duty.”

You can’t respawn.

Among the mountains above the Arghandab River valley and Highway 1, Arrowsmith 35 went down.(Google Earth)

In the southern corner of Afghanistan, a succession of mountain ranges rises to the east above the Arghandab River valley and Highway 1. Treeless peaks, occasionally dusted with snow in winter, remind soldiers of the inhospitable planet Tatooine in “Star Wars.”

Trade routes cross into Pakistan and create corridors for insurgents to transport weapons, money and drugs. The Army believed that stopping this commerce would reduce attacks on coalition forces.

The key lay in disrupting radio transmissions, and repeater towers, which boost signals over the mountains, were a convenient target.

Blackhawk and Apache helicopters scoured the peaks looking for anything unusual: an antenna, a strand of wire, a solar cell. Once a tower was identified, a door gunner would start firing until the equipment lay shredded in the dirt.

In time, a new tower would be installed, and although the missions seemed like a game of whack-a-mole, Jayson believed he was making a difference.

On Dec. 17, 2013, their bird, known by its call sign as Arrowsmith 35, was accompanied by another Blackhawk. They traded off searching for targets.

Document: Executive summary of the Arrowsmith 35 investigation »

As the crew of Arrowsmith 35 drew near a ridge 125 miles northeast of Kandahar, they spotted a black object that looked like a manhole cover. It was their last mission of the day.

They started to circle 100 feet above the target, and the crew aboard the other helicopter heard a radio transmission in Pashto: “Get the big one ready.”

“Let’s get out of here,” one of the pilots shouted.

Moments later, an explosion on the ground sent a shock wave and shrapnel into Arrowsmith 35.

Jayson caught Forde’s eyes. They told him to be alert.

As the Blackhawk spun toward the ground, he surprised himself. He wasn’t scared.

Jayson awoke inside the wreckage. Still strapped into his jump seat, he felt dazed, his head so heavy he couldn’t lift it.

Opening his eyes, he saw Forde at his feet with a gash under his chin. Jayson could hear him breathe, each inhale a gasp, each exhale a wet cough.

At least Forde was alive. He would know what to do, Jayson thought before slipping away again.

The Blackhawk rolled 200 yards down the mountain.

Jayson opened his eyes and wondered how long he had been out.

He was bleeding from wounds on his scalp and forehead. He seemed to be alone. Forde was no longer at his feet. He had been tossed from the wreckage.

The helicopter looked like a crushed soda can.

Jayson smelled JP8, diesel fuel, and worried about an explosion.

As he moved, the pain in his leg startled him. Through a tear in his pants, he saw more blood and the skin turning purple.

“Sgt. Forde,” he shouted. “Sgt. Williams.”

Sgt. 1st Class Omar Forde and his wife, Megan, with their sons, Ayden, left, and Devery, in an undated photo. (Forde family)

He unbuckled his harness. The seat was broken, and he fell to the floor. He tried to find his feet, but his right leg couldn’t take the pressure. He was sure his back was broken.

He thought about Whitley and their two sons. They would be celebrating their birthdays soon: Eli turning 5 in January, Silas 2 in March.

Before deployment, he had taken out a $300,000 life insurance policy. Whitley would get half and the boys a quarter each when they turned 25.

He thought about what might happen next — the enemy on the ground — and he looked around for a weapon.

His M4 was jammed in the wreckage. He found another and rolled onto his stomach.

Propped on his elbows, he dragged himself onto the mountain, left leg pushing him ahead, right leg scraping behind. The sun was low in the west, bright glare and long shadows cutting across the peaks.

“Sgt. Forde,” he called out again.


To his left, he saw the body of one of the pilots slumped out of a busted cockpit window.

Overhead, the other Blackhawk was holding steady. He waved, wondering if they could see he was alive.

Working his way up the slope, 20 feet or so, Jayson found another body facedown.

It was Williams. Blood pooled in the dirt by his head.

Looking for cover, Jayson crawled back to the fuselage and angled himself toward the top of the hill. That’s where the enemy would come from, he thought.

He could no longer see the other helicopter overhead. Running low on fuel, its crew had returned to Apache, the nearest forward operating base.

Gun in hand, Jayson accepted that he was going to die alone.

Whoop. Whoop. Whoop.

The first rescue chopper came in low. Soldiers jumped onto the steep slope, slipping in the loose sand as they set up a perimeter.

“Are you the only one alive?”

“I think so,” Jayson said, hoping they would tell him he was wrong.

As the adrenaline drained from his limbs, pain flooded through him. He shivered from the cold. He was placed in a rescue basket and lifted aboard a hovering Medevac.

Back at Apache, a medical team prepared him for the flight to Kandahar, stripping him of his fuel-soaked clothing and cutting off the yarn bracelet — a good-luck charm from Whitley — that he wore on his ankle.

“Where’s Forde?” he asked.

“Let’s not worry about that now,” someone said.

That night, nearly 60 soldiers kept watch on the mountain. Winds gusted to 30 knots and temperatures dropped below zero.

Within 24 hours, with the other bodies recovered and the equipment and gear retrieved, Arrowsmith 35 was bombed and strafed into pieces.



Arrowsmith 35: The war comes home

When Whitley went on Facebook that day, she froze. Someone had posted a short notice on a page popular among Ft. Riley wives.

I wish I could be with all six families who lost their service members in the Blackhawk crash this morning.

Whitley knew Jayson was out on a mission that day.

She texted Forde’s wife, Megan, but nothing could be confirmed; no names had been released.

Whitley sent Jayson an email:

I am terrified that I am going to open my door to soldiers in their dress blues. I have never been this scared in all of my life.

The waiting ended the next day when soldiers, casually dressed, knocked on her door.

“You can tell by our uniforms,” one of them said, “that your husband is alive.”

Whitley and Jayson had met in 2007 at a call center in Pikeville, Ky., a coal-mining town about to be hammered by the recession. He answered phones; she helped troubleshoot the calls.

She was a year older, 19, with pretty brown eyes, a self-conscious smile and a lilt in her voice that immediately caught his attention.

He had a reputation as a wild child, a skateboarder with piercings and tattoos and an arrest for public intoxication: drinking King Cobras in a strip mall, overturning trash cans.

She thought he was gorgeous, green eyes, perfect hair, and never imagined she would have a chance with him.

They started to share music from metal bands, Bayside, Chiodos, Bring Me the Horizon. Then he invited her to a concert.

He proposed on a Sunday. The next day — Feb. 23, 2009, a date tattooed on his left ring finger — they took their vows at her aunt’s brother’s house. They exchanged $30 rings from Wal-Mart.

After Whitley got pregnant, they left the call center and moved in with her mom, Edwina. She and Jayson didn’t get along. Edwina thought he was lazy and irresponsible.

It didn’t matter. Whitley and Jayson called themselves the Dynamic Duo. It was them against the world, and they were happy.

He worked part time, first at a Wal-Mart, later at a Subway, but he was never able to get the hours he needed. Whatever the couple managed to earn seemed to go for gas and diapers.

Jayson remembered his uncle in the Air Force. He wasn’t rich, but he lived well. In high school, Jayson had done well on a military aptitude test, and he went to see a recruiter.

He was told he couldn’t join until he got his ears fixed. His lobes had been stretched for plugs.

He and Whitley tried to save for the procedure — it could cost up to $2,000 — but ended up paying with a credit card borrowed from his grandmother.

He left for basic training in June 2012, and Whitley had to put aside her concerns.

Eight years earlier, she had lost her brother in an accident outside Ft. Drum, N.Y., just a month before he was to deploy with the Army to Iraq.

Three days after being pulled off the mountain in Afghanistan, Jayson hobbled to the bathroom. He was in a hospital near Landstuhl, Germany.

Peering into the mirror, he hardly recognized himself, a 24-year-old man on crutches, stitches between his eyebrows, a gash above his ear, another on his forehead and a bruise purpling his cheek.

He had a broken right hip and fractured lumbar vertebrae.

Despite the morphine and Percocet, he felt pain with the tiniest movement.

Sole survivor of Arrowsmith 35

  • 1 Chief Warrant Officer 2 Randy L. Billings
  • 2 Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua B. Silverman
  • 3 Sergeant Peter Bohler
  • 4 Specialist Terry Gordon
  • 5 Private 1st Class Jayson Morton
  • 6 Sergeant 1st Class Omar Forde
  • 4 Staff Sergeant Jesse Williams
(Doug Stevens / Los Angeles Times)

Some people made him out to be a celebrity. Others called him a hero.

“There is a reason the good Lord has put this blessing upon you,” his brigade commander said.

He didn’t feel like a hero.

He had made it out alive because he sat in a lucky seat.

Back home in the United States, he was released from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, the day after Christmas and assigned to a rehabilitation unit known as the Warrior Transition Battalion.

He used to dream about his homecoming, twirling Whitley in the air, holding his sons close. This wasn’t it.

At his first formation, 6:30 a.m. in a freezing auditorium, Jayson thought there had been a mistake.

Looking around, he saw amputees and soldiers with head injuries and eye patches. Some rode in motorized wheelchairs. Many of the injuries were permanent, but his weren’t.

“If they give you an option to get med-boarded, do it,” a sergeant told him, referring to a medical disability discharge. “If they ask you, take it.”

A full disability rating would net him more than $3,100 a month tax-free, most likely for life, tempting for a soldier who earned about $2,100 a month before taxes and rent.

Jayson tried to imagine being a civilian again. He could sleep in. He could go to college, start a new career, pay down their debts.

The daydream ended when he remembered who he was before the Army. His mind went back to the shuttered coal mines, the part-time jobs and food stamps.

He told his doctors that he wanted to get back to Ft. Riley. He wanted to return to Afghanistan.

He remembered Forde, who had served twice in Iraq. The Army needed soldiers like them.

Megan Forde and son Ayden watch as Sgt. 1st Class Omar Forde’s casket is loaded into a hearse after his funeral in December 2013. (Jonathan Phillips)

In mid-January, the Army flew Jayson and Whitley back to Kansas for a ceremony honoring the five Ft. Riley soldiers lost in the crash of Arrowsmith 35.

The winter day was bitterly cold. Jayson was still on crutches, and he and Whitley sat with Megan Forde and her two boys in the crowded chapel.

On a set of risers stood five pairs of combat boots, five 8-by-10 photos, four aviation helmets for the flight crew and in the middle, a combat helmet for Forde.

“Sgt. 1st Class Forde,” the first sergeant called out once the memorial began.

No one replied, and Whitley thought there had been a mistake.

“Sgt. 1st Class Omar Forde.”

More silence.

“Sgt. 1st Class Omar Wilfred Forde.”

Then she understood. She glanced at Jayson and reached for his hand. He was crying like she had never seen before.

Afterward, Jayson tried to keep his distance from the family members of the crew, but they sought him out. Because the crash was still being investigated, the Army had offered them no details.

Jayson tried to answer their questions but was certain they were wondering how he, a private, had walked away from the crash and their sons, their husbands, hadn’t.

That night Whitley’s cellphone rang. A captain wanted to know whether Jayson had his uniform with him. His promotion to specialist had been approved, and they wanted to honor him in a ceremony in the morning.

Whitley thought the decision was hasty. She worried that his commanding officers were not giving him time to adjust.

A week later, back in San Antonio, Jayson got even better news: He was being sent back to Kansas. He was told he had broken the record for quickest recovery at the Warrior Transition Battalion.

Still on crutches, he was given an option to move into a one-story house on the base. He declined.

He would handle the three flights of stairs at Pickett Place.

Spc. Jayson Morton, center, stretches during physical training at Ft. Riley, Kan., in March. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

For the first few weeks, Whitley drove Jayson to work. From the car, she watched him limp into headquarters, where he helped manage the training area and shooting ranges on the base.

As he recovered, she could tell he had changed.

He was more difficult to talk to. Anger, hardened by a mannered bravura, lay just under the surface, and whenever the conversation shifted to Arrowsmith 35, he treated the attack as a personal assault, as if the enemy had deliberately targeted his friends.

He read a news story that said the war on terror was over, and he panicked. He felt robbed of the opportunity to go back to Afghanistan and redeem the losses of that day. He wanted the enemy and their families to feel the grief that he felt.

Although he sensed that something was not quite right, he told himself that whatever it was, he could fix it on his own.

At his cubicle, he worked on an old laptop with a can of Red Bull and a bottle for his tobacco chew nearby. Other soldiers gave him his space, and when someone would ask how he was doing, the answer was always the same:

“Just fine.”

He hated that his name was attached to Arrowsmith 35. Reminders of Forde and the flight crew felt like a punch in the chest. They were the real heroes.

He positioned his Purple Heart ribbon beneath the lapel of his dress uniform. If no one could see it, no one would ask about it.

One day driving home, he tried to remember a conversation, any conversation, he had had at work, and he couldn’t.

“Maybe you should see a counselor,” Whitley said.

No way, he said. That could only hurt his career.

Spc. Jayson Morton works on a vehicle in the motor pool at Ft. Riley. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Whitley missed their funny and carefree days, and she didn’t know how to get them back.

They used to enjoy barbecues and relaxing with friends, going to the park with the boys or getting ice cream at the Sonic off the base in Junction City. Now Jayson stayed inside on weekends.

She knew he was hurting. Inflammation, his doctor called it and tried to help with pain relievers, patches, a brace and ointments.

Sleep was an ordeal. No nightmares that Jayson could remember, just thrashing about. They thought a new mattress would help but didn’t have the money.

Whitley knew she was lucky to have him home alive. There were plenty of wives who didn’t have their husbands. She just wished that someone in his chain of command would see what was wrong.

The doctors in Germany had screened him for traumatic brain injury, and in San Antonio, they had cleared him for active duty. They knew that the effects of PTSD might not develop until later, and Jayson insisted he felt fine.

If only it hadn’t been so easy, Whitley thought. Jayson needed to talk to someone.

But soldiers can’t be ordered into counseling, and Jayson seemed to be adapting to his losses. His commanders turned to a prescription as old as war: look to the future.

“Focusing on the past is not always the best way to get to health,” said Maj. Joshua Gilliam, the chaplain for Jayson’s unit. “We need to give Jayson something forward to focus on. Vision is more powerful than baggage.”

Jayson worked hard to get back into shape. He pushed himself during morning calisthenics or the two-mile run. When told he could slow down — no need to prove himself — he would stop, stretch and pick up the pace again. He had to be ready if called up.

But the more Jayson projected confidence and determination, the more Whitley worried what their lives would look like if he wasn’t redeployed.

She began to dread his coming home at night, and when he was in the living room playing “Call of Duty,” she often retreated to the kitchen, crying.

On Dec. 17, the anniversary of the crash, Jayson went to a park where the 1st Infantry Division has a memorial to its soldiers killed since the invasion of Iraq.

He brought six roses for his friends and something extra for Forde: a can of Skoal Long Cut tobacco. Alone, he laid the gifts on the marble plaques.

A memorial for the six soldiers killed when Arrowsmith Three Five crashed in Afghanistan. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

The fallen soldiers of Arrowsmith 35 »

Afterward, he stopped by Wal-Mart to buy a DVD of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Whitley texted him that they didn’t have the money.

“I need something to distract me,” he explained when he got home.

She tried to get him to open up. She thought about her brother.

“I’ll never understand what you’ve been through,” she said, “but I’ve dealt with loss.”

“You’ll never understand,” he said.

They sat in silence.

In late January this year, Jayson started a month-long course to prepare for promotion to sergeant.

He rose at 4:30 each morning and was often the first to arrive. After eight hours of instruction, he went back to headquarters to finish his work and got home with just enough time to study and go to bed.

Two days into the program, Whitley was ready for it to be over. His graduation brought little joy. Jayson had disappeared from his family, and she saw no end to it.

She wondered whether she could ask him to leave the Army. The thought scared her, and she felt bad for thinking it.

She said nothing.

I can’t be here.

The words were too difficult to say, so she texted him at work. It was March 16, the day before his birthday. They had had a long conversation the week before, but now she meant it.

He didn’t understand. Hadn’t they just been talking about having another baby?

“I don’t feel like a person anymore,” she said when he got home. She was going to take Eli and Silas and stay with her mother in Kentucky.

Jayson was blindsided.

“I busted my ass for you,” he said.

She knew she would be judged for what she was doing, but she wouldn’t take the blame.

The Army had let them down, she thought. She wished someone had ordered Jayson to counseling.

She packed up the boys and left.

Jayson was devastated. He thought they could have worked things out. He changed his Facebook status from married to divorced.

He hadn’t asked anyone for help. He hadn’t made excuses for his pain.

Maybe he had PTSD after all, he thought. But if so, it was nothing like he imagined. No flashbacks, no freak outs, none of the crazy stuff.

Just loneliness.

Jayson volunteered for therapy soon after Whitley left. He was diagnosed with PTSD.

His responsibilities with his unit were cut back.

“Life sucks,” he said not long after she left.

One day at Wal-Mart, he bought two journals, one for Whitley and one for Eli. He wrote in both of them and mailed them to his family. He asked them to do the same.

Spc. Jayson Morton works on a vehicle in the motor pool at Ft. Riley. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

“Don’t hold anything back,” he said, and Whitley didn’t. She had nothing to lose, and without his interruptions or having to look him in the eye, she found it easier to explain herself.

She felt as though he had cut her out of his life. She described how lonely it was.

They talked on the phone.

“I’m sorry,” Jayson said to her one evening after realizing that he had never told her about that day in Afghanistan.

She heard the regret in his voice. She wanted to believe he meant it.

After three months, he flew to Kentucky. He and Whitley worked it out so he could surprise Eli at school. It was the homecoming Jayson never got.

“I’m not pressuring you,” he said to Whitley, “but would you be ready to come back?”

She wasn’t sure, and for the two weeks he was in Kentucky, they talked about the last year. He seemed to be working hard to set things right.

Today, Jayson and Whitley and the boys are back on Pickett Place. Jayson put up a backyard fence so they can safely play outside.

Whitley sometimes watches from the kitchen window. She loves her husband and is worried about him.

He still gets angry but doesn’t show it as much. His sleep is more restless, almost violent, now.

He says he dreams of falling, and he lives with pain, frustrated that he can’t spend more time teaching Eli how to skateboard or running with Silas when they play soccer.

When he looks back over the last year and who he was after the crash, he doesn’t recognize himself and is apologetic for what he put his family through.

“It was like I was stuck in the mud on a steep slope,” he said, “spinning my tires and only digging myself in deeper.”

His counselor has recommended a PTSD clinic off base, but the program would take him away from his family for a month, and right now his family is his support.

He went before the promotion board on the base a few weeks ago, his interview to become a sergeant like Forde.

He was questioned for half an hour but didn’t pass.

The next day Whitley began quizzing him with flash cards they had made.

Jayson looks forward to trying again.

Whitley and Jayson Morton talk in their kitchen at Ft. Riley before he leaves for work. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

A few days before the interview, he and Whitley and the boys were out on a Saturday and stopped by a uniform shop on the post.

He said he had ordered a new name plate, and when he came back to the car, he told her it wasn’t ready.

But that was a ruse.

The shop had made him two new dog tags.

That night, he gave her a set as a gift: a new one and an old one, one for the future and one for the past.

Scratched and dull, the old one had been with him in basic training and in Afghanistan.

It had been closest to his heart when Arrowsmith 35 went down.

He reached out and put the tags around her neck.

About this story: This report is based on more than two dozen interviews with Jayson and Whitley Morton, conducted by phone and at Ft. Riley, Kan., over the last year. Times reporter Thomas Curwen also interviewed Sgt. Omar Forde’s widow, Megan Forde; members of the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade at Ft. Riley; and psychologists with expertise in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He reviewed unclassified portions of the Army’s 1,900-page investigative report on the downing of Arrowsmith 35.

Additional credits: Designer: Lily Mihalik | Digital producer: Evan Wagstaff