Soldiers of Deuce Four mourn loss of 'one in a million' sergeant

David Ross, 25, left, and Sgt. Sean Ferguson, 22, share memories and funny stories about Sgt. Benjamin Morton, 24. Ferguson was Morton's roommate at Forward Operating Base, Marez, Iraq.


By SANDRA JONTZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 25, 2005

FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq — Death snatched more than a young soldier in the prime of his life early Sunday morning.

It took away a lover of fast motorcycles, country music and Disney films; a husband who had just celebrated his first wedding anniversary; a guy who never tackled a task half way.

It took away a man who loved to laugh, and even more, to make others laugh.

Death snatched 24-year-old Sgt. Benjamin Morton.

“Rat was the guy who, if you asked him to run to the top of a hill with 3,000 pounds of gear, he would,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Bowman, using Morton’s nickname.

“He would do anything you asked him to do, and then he’d find a better way to do it. He was one in a million. One in a million.”

The men of 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, or Deuce Four, have had 10 soldiers killed in action and 132 wounded since the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based unit arrived in Iraq in October.

They all have stories. But Morton’s is particularly special, soldiers said.

His combat brothers in Recon Platoon called him “Rat” because he collected and stored just about anything and everything.

“He kept everything he found,” said Sgt. Sean Ferguson, 22, who has known Morton for more than three years and shared a trailer room with him at FOB Marez.

“But man, whenever we needed something, we could just go to Rat and he’d have it. He’d laugh at us, because he just knew.

“There was something about him.”

About 1 a.m. Sunday, Recon Platoon soldiers raided a home in the Yarmook neighborhood of Mosul, on the trail of a key car bomb maker. Morton was the front man in searching a second-story room.

A gunman, hiding on a balcony, sprayed bullets from his AK-47 through a window, hitting Morton four times. Morton died of his wounds at the Combat Support Hospital.

“I’ll tell you how I feel. It rips my heart out every time because I know every one of these men. However, Rat was special,” Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla said of the 700-man battalion he commands and the man whose soft-spoken voice he heard almost daily on combat patrols.

“There isn’t a man in this battalion who wouldn’t want to be the No. 1 man entering and clearing a room of terrorists,” Kurilla said. “But I know what they’re doing here is the right thing, and the right thing is getting back out there and taking out terrorist networks.”

During the raid, soldiers killed one suspected insurgent and detained five others. One of the detainees was wounded — the one who killed Morton.

Hours later, upon returning to base, the triumph they normally would have experienced after a raid was eclipsed by somberness.

“We sat in dead silence for three or four hours when we returned to the FOB,” Ferguson said. “Sat stunned. How could we have lost Rat?”

It’s the second combat death for Recon Platoon, a tight-knit group of scouts and snipers used more offensively in Iraq than is usual. They’re a platoon of soldiers awarded 18 Purple Hearts and nominated for numerous valor awards, including three Silver Stars.

“I wonder who has it worse, us or the family members?” Bowman thought out loud. “It’s a rough ride, any way you look at it.”

“[Rat] knew more about everything than most people know about their own thing,” Bowman, 36, said.

“He was smart, as smart as they come,” Ferguson said. “If you needed electricity, you could give him an apricot, a paper clip and wire and he’d create electricity.”

He had a nurturing side, too. Spc. David Ross, 25, met Morton on a night that, after drinking too much, no one could drive. Morton showed up.

“Yeah, he cared a lot about us,” Ross said. “We sometimes called him ‘Mom.’”

The day before he died, Morton showed Ferguson a motorcycle enthusiast’s magazine with a photo of the leather biker jacket he’d been eyeing, which matched perfectly the black-and-silver Honda CVR he planned to buy.

“He had everything all planned out,” Ferguson said of the All-American kid from Dodge City, Kan. “He was going to move back to Kansas with his wife. He wanted to spend more time with her.”

Morton has been awarded a Bronze Star with valor device for his actions during a Dec. 11 fight against attackers using a car bomb and small arms. He was also posthumously awarded an Army Commendation Medal for his actions the night he died.

Privately, they’ll mourn. But first, they’ll need to jump back in the saddle, soldiers said.

In the kill zone, for now, it’s the only way to cope, Ferguson said.

“We’ll go out again and again. There’s no time here to think about it. There will be plenty of time to think when we get back. We still have a job to do here. Rat knows that,” he said.

“He knew that.”

Spc. Nicholas Buchheit, 21, works at putting together a computerized slideshow of photos, set to music, to honor Sgt. Benjamin Morton.