They wish he was home for Christmas

Published 2:36 pm Monday, December 23, 2013


Joe and Shirley Morrison hold up a picture of their son, Derek, who is currently in Afghanistan — Ashley Johnson

Joe and Shirley Morrison decided to ditch their normal approach on a Christmas tree for their living room. This year they decorated a small, “Charlie Brown” tree and have dubbed it the “freedom tree.”

The tree has an assortment of symbols of freedom resting on its braches. There are birds, butterflies, flags, stars, bells, a crown of thorns and red, white and blue garland.

There is a yellow ribbon tied around a giant pine tree in their front yard — this is also a freedom tree. The Morrisons, who live in Decatur County, are gearing up for their first Christmas without their youngest son Derek currently serving in Afghanistan.

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Merry Christmas from Afghanistan

“We are a close family and Christmas is a very special time for us,” Shirley Morrison said. “He is loved and is in our hearts and minds and surely not taken for granted.”

Derek is in Afghanistan because it was his decision. His father Joe said Derek wanted to go overseas and serve in the Army so that one day when he was in a leadership role, he would have paid his dues overseas first.

“He said he wanted to be a leader that had been there and knew what it was like,” Joe said.

Shirley said she was touched when he gave her the same reason for his desire to be deployed.

“He has a desire to move up in rank as a leader,” Shirley said. “He told me, ‘Mom, wouldn’t it be better to lead others if you had been there and experienced it yourself?’”

Derek was promoted as a Sergeant on Dec. 1. His older brother Cody is also serving in the military. Cody is stationed in Jacksonville, Fla. and is in the Navy working as a rescue swim trainer.

Joe and Shirley said their family would have a meal, sing in their church’s Christmas cantata, pray and exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. Hopefully, they said, they will get to talk to Derek either through Skype or through a phone call.

“My company is going to have a little down time,” Derek said of his Christmas plans. “The chow halls will have a special meal prepared on Christmas.”

Derek has asked his parents for shampoo, toothpaste, dental floss, sun block and even air fresheners for his wrecker he operates in Afghanistan. The Morrisons said they are constantly sending him care packages and so does their church, Southwest Baptist.

“Every time we know he gets a package, we send another one,” Shirley said.

They sent him a Florida Gators belt and helmet for Christmas this year. The packages were in the mail to him several weeks before Christmas.

As any parent would, Shirley and Joe pray continually for their son’s safe return. His mother waits for his Facebook messages, and his father always looks forward to messaging his son back and forth on smart phone apps like Voxer.

Though they get nervous for the safety of both of their sons who have dangerous professions, they are trusting there is a plan, they said, bigger than themselves.

That is because more than 25 years ago, parents Shirley and Joe were not sure they would ever have a son to call their own.


Unexpected gifts from God

“In church I wouldn’t say I was praying for children, but I would say I have a very special unspoken prayer request and it was a personal thing,” Shirley said. “It was a very personal thing with me and my husband and I just felt like I had that mother instinct. And when children didn’t come, I couldn’t understand why.”

Shirley said she was confused. She did all the right things, and was now 35-years-old. She was married to her first husband at age 18 and had plenty of time to have a child.

“Then a miracle happened,” Shirley said. Explaining God gave her and Joe their first son Cody. Joe had a daughter from a previous marriage; their daughter Jessica was seven when the two married. Now with a son Cody, they didn’t expect what was next. One year later Derek arrived in their lives.

“But I don’t believe that God answered my prayer because I wanted children,” Shirley said. “I believe he answered my prayer because he had special plans for my children.”

Each day she prayed her sons would be respectful, respectable men that served their communities, churches and country. She had no idea 25 years later they would both enter the armed forces. Their father Joe prepared them after all his stories, photos and medals the boys were enamored with from his time serving in Vietnam in the Army. He too did not know they would one day serve.

“Because I waited for so long, they are more precious I think,” Shirley said, and husband Joe agreed calling them, “treasures.”


 Harsh realities of war at Christmas

While his parents celebrate his accomplishments and are proud of his career decision, sometimes the reality of their son being in a violent area becomes apparent.

Shirley recalls talking with Derek on the phone while hearing sirens to alert the soldiers mortars were coming into the base.

Derek said he awaits his return home.

“Yes, every day is a Monday out here. But one thing I learned is, I’m not here because I hate what’s in front of me, I’m here because I love what I left behind. I miss my friends and family,” Derek said.

“When I finally get home, I’m gonna take the time to live, just breathe. Appreciate what so many others have given their lives for. I’ll be home soon.”