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Family awaits answers more than a month after Aviano airman's death

Tech. Sgt. Michael Wayne Morris, a maintainer at Aviano Air Base, Italy, died Jan. 12, 2021, after contracting the coronavirus. More than a month later, the Air Force has not released the cause of his death.

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By CHAD GARLAND AND NORMAN LLAMAS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 19, 2021

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AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — The Air Force and the family of Tech. Sgt. Michael W. Morris still don’t know what caused his death last month while quarantining at home alone, hours after calling to wish his youngest daughter a happy 5th birthday.

“No official cause of death has been determined as the results of the autopsy are not complete and initial phases have been inconclusive,” Maj. Sarah Babcock, 31st Fighter Wing spokeswoman, said in an email this month.

Family members believe his Jan. 12 death was related to the coronavirus, which he tested positive for about a week earlier. But with Italian and military autopsies inconclusive and a medical review still open, his wife and others are left questioning what led to the sharp decline in his health.

“Authorities have yet to answer the questions his family struggles to grasp,” his sister-in-law Adrian Miller wrote Feb. 11 on a GoFundMe campaign page she set up, noting that the following day would be one month since his death and 10 days since his funeral service.

On Friday, airmen and others at Aviano Air Base gathered to celebrate his life and service, while his family in the United States tries to make sense of his death.

Unusual delay

It’s unclear what might have caused Morris’ death, other than complications of the virus, or why it has stymied medical examiners, but officials said they have ruled out foul play.

The delay in the determination is unusual for a possible coronavirus death, compared to the 22 fatalities throughout the military officially attributed to the disease as of Wednesday.

The Defense Department announced most of those deaths as coronavirus-related within four days. Several took about 24 hours and none of the publicly known cases took more than two weeks, an analysis shows.

Adding to the family’s desire to know more is the fact that none of them were with the 36-year-old helicopter craftsman in his final moments. Instead, someone from his command was on the phone with him.

The father of three was at home a few miles from the base in northern Italy, while his wife, two daughters and son were 7,400 miles away visiting family in his home state of Minnesota. He wasn’t able to go because of travel restrictions, his wife said.

They’d spoken to him earlier that day, hours before he called for an ambulance complaining of breathing problems, said Amanda Morris, his wife of 14 years. She learned of his death the following day, from a relative.

“We spoke with him that morning and he spoke with (his daughter) Makenna, he wished her a happy birthday and he seemed all right,” she said. “His voice sounded like he was congested, but he didn’t sound really sick.”

But days after his death, she told Stars and Stripes that he said he had complained twice before to medical personnel on the phone about difficulty breathing, and was advised to stay home both times. His symptoms seemed to improve at some point, before declining again.

On one call, he was advised not to go to the emergency room since he wasn’t having chest pains, she said. On the second call he was told an ER visit was not recommended, she said, though he still had trouble taking a full breath.

Symptoms to watch

Shortness of breath is listed as one of the “emergency warning signs” for which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises COVID-19 patients to seek emergency care. So is chest pain.

The two symptoms, or others like leg swelling or a worsening cough, could signal one of the disease’s “most feared” and deadliest complications, a blockage of arteries in the lungs known as a pulmonary embolism, said Dr. (Col.) Joshua Hawley-Molloy.

Hawley-Molloy, an infectious disease specialist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, was not privy to the details of the Morris case, but discussed COVID-19’s potential complications in general.

The disease tends to allow blood clots to form more easily, increasing odds of pulmonary embolism, which can set on suddenly and quickly turn fatal, he said.

“You shouldn’t wait” if shortness of breath worsens, he said. “You should get to the ER via ambulance or whatever way you can get there fastest — preferably the ambulance so they can monitor you and give you oxygen en route.”

Morris’ symptoms had been mild when he discussed them with a primary care manager in the days leading up to his death, said Babcock, the Aviano spokeswoman. They also discussed what to do if the symptoms worsened, including when to call for an ambulance.

When he did call the emergency number, an ambulance was dispatched from a hospital in Pordenone to his home in Cordenons, the local Il Gazzettino newspaper reported. It’s a trip of about 3 miles. He was unresponsive when it arrived and efforts to revive him failed, the paper said.

His wife first heard about his death from a relative the next morning, after an Air Force officer was unable to reach her at home. The officer went on to notify Morris’ grandmother, his designated secondary next of kin, and word spread from there.

A casualty notification officer met with Morris’ wife later and expressed condolences in person, said an Air Force official, who asked not to be named to discuss sensitive details. His wife said his commander in Italy also called her later that day.

Devoted to family

Other than feeling lonely without the family, Morris “was in good spirits” before his death, his wife said, and he had been in good health before being infected.

“My husband was a healthy man and if it happened to him, it can happen to anyone,” she said, a reality that hit home to some family members who she said didn’t believe the coronavirus was real.

She and their kids had departed Italy in July to spend time with their family, leaving her husband and the family cat in Europe as Morris awaited orders for his next duty assignment.

“We were expecting to reunite with him in May, and we spoke regularly,” she said. “He talked with his kids on the phone very regularly. He missed us and we missed him.”

A member of the Leech Lake Ojibwe tribe, Morris joined the Air Force in 2006. He deployed to Iraq three times and Afghanistan twice, his wife said, and was sent to Sicily as part of a response team during the 2012 attack on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, though that team ultimately didn’t end up going into the African country.

“He took his job very seriously, but he was always smiling, happy, telling jokes and he loved making new friends,” she said. “He was planning to make the Air Force a career.”

He’d also recently been taking online classes to prepare for a post-retirement career, she said.

“He was a very loving father and husband,” she said. “His primary focus in life was his family.”

Questions remain

Morris expected to return to duty from holiday leave after the New Year, but saw his doctor when he began feeling sick, his wife said. He tested positive Jan. 4.

He told her there had been an outbreak among some airmen at the base in December, she said, but she didn’t know the number of cases. Commands in Europe have been reticent to discuss rates of infection.

While he was in quarantine, members of his unit delivered medications and people from base dropped off groceries. They were likely the last people to see him alive, she said.

But Morris’ wife believes medical personnel should have intervened earlier, given that he was alone. She believes he only spoke to his doctor twice by phone after his initial diagnosis.

“I just don’t know why anyone from the base didn’t go check on him, in person,” she said. “Especially after the first time he expressed that he was having trouble breathing. I definitely feel that they could have done more for him.”

Patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, but who have mild symptoms, are quarantined at home and monitored daily by the base’s medical group and members of their unit, Babcock said.

Since his death, his wife has been “taking it day-by-day,” she said, and was staying with family, whom she said it was good to be around while she was grieving.

Their older children, Matehya, 12, and Brayden, 10, took the news of his death especially hard, she said. Their youngest “doesn’t understand what’s really going on but, she often talks about her dad.”

A fundraiser started by his unit raised more than $11,000 to pay expenses related to sending the cat home to the family and for other costs.

Morris’ remains were returned to Minnesota late last month and he was laid to rest Feb. 2 at a small private ceremony at a veterans cemetery in his hometown.

garland.chad@stripes.com
Twitter: @chadgarland

llamas.norman@stripes.com
Twitter: @normanllamas

Tech. Sgt. Michael W. Morris with wife Amanda, and children Brayden, Matehya and Makenna in England. Morris died Jan. 12, 2021, while home alone near Aviano Air Base, Italy, about a week after testing positive for the coronavirus. After more than a month, the Air Force has not released a cause of death.
AMANDA MORRIS