Col. Morrison describes his heart-melting surprise family reunion at Miller Park
Surely, you've seen the video. You've smiled and probably shed a few tears watching it, too. This is the story behind the reunion.
Amid an impressively successful Brewers season on the field, Wednesday's series finale against the Cubs provided a heartwarming, off-field highlight for Milwaukee. Before the first pitch at Miller Park, the club, as it does every home game, recognized a member of the military, thanking them for their service to the country.
That afternoon, a woman and two young boys stood atop the Brewers' dugout to be honored.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the stadium announcer said over the public address, "please join Network Health in recognizing today's hero, Colonel Jay Morrison, who's represented by his wife, Rachel, and sons, Trey and Luke."
Wednesday, June 13 was Trey Morrison's 12th birthday, and his father had missed the previous three while on deployment. As the crowd cheered, Colonel Morrison surprisingly appeared behind his family, sneaking up and tapping his older son on the shoulder. When Trey turned around and saw his dad, he jumped into his arms, they hugged and kissed, the whole family happily embraced and Miller Park – and later the entire internet – melted.
An active member of the Army since 1995, Colonel Morrison was deployed to Kuwait last July as part of the Special Operations Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, the current mission in the Middle East to defeat ISIS. He returned on June 12, just in time for his son's birthday at the game, which required some logistical maneuvering and the happy help of the Brewers and United Service Organizations.
This summer, Morrison will be assigned to the United States Army First Corps at Fort Lewis, Washington, where he'll change units, receive his next deployment and move his family.
A proud Milwaukeean and diehard Brewers fan, we caught up with Morrison to talk about all that led to his surprise reunion, becoming a viral-video sensation and what that moment felt like and meant not only for his family, but also other service members and fans of baseball and joy.
OnMilwaukee: Can you tell me about the background and planning that led up to that incredible moment at the game on Wednesday?
Colonel Morrison: I'll try to be brief. But as I'm sure you saw in the video, I missed my oldest son's last three birthdays. And I was scheduled to miss his fourth in a row, because I did a year-long deployment in support of ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria out of Kuwait. And, in truth, we found out that we're going to move from here to Washington state in about the middle of August.
So when I first started looking at the calendar, I said, "Well, that's a pretty tight turn to leave the first week of July, then get the kids into school and get them all set in Washington state – it gives us about a month and a half." It isn't a lot of time to move, sell the house, find a place to live and everything.
I decided to ask my boss, "Hey, can I get a couple weeks off of my deployment, just to help set conditions for the kids?" And when I started to look at it, the date that caught my eye was, if I took two and half weeks off at the end of my deployment, I can potentially be home for my son's birthday. And being very aware that this would be his fourth birthday in a row I hadn't been home for since he turned eight. So I said, that's what I'm gonna ask – "Hey can I get out of here to be home for his birthday?"
Well my boss, very gracious guy, he has six children of his own and, like so many of our military folks, he misses a lot of birthdays, family events. He said, "Absolutely, let's get you out of here."
Now, I have to cringe when I say this, but part of the blame, if you will, on this, has to fall on a Cubs fan. And that Cubs fan happens to be, believe it or not, my youngest son. We've been here for about three years, and I live in Illinois right now. I was the professor of military science at Northern Illinois University, ran our ROTC department here for three years. So being here for the last three years, my youngest got swept up when the Cubs won the World Series; all of his friends are Cubs fans because they're from here, so he became a Cubs fan.
Well, last summer, before I deployed, I took both my boys and gave them a day just with me. We played a little hooky from school and I took them away. I said, "Hey, we're gonna plan a day just to do things that you guys want." Well, my oldest boy and I, we went indoor skydiving. And then for my youngest, he was a Cubs fan, so I took him to a game at Wrigley. Of course, I took him to a Brewers game, and we won. I got him a Cubs jersey. He was smitten; he wore that stupid Cubs jersey, for God's sake, for about four weeks and refused to wear anything else.
So when I discovered I was coming home, and I was gonna come home in time for my oldest's birthday, I was already thinking, boy, it'd be cool if we could surprise him somehow. Like, maybe have a big box in the living room, and I could be hiding inside of it. But I thought, well, we've got a dog at home and the dog's gonna chew right through that.
I'm thinking about all these different things, and going through some of the options in my head. I wanted to potentially take my boys to another Brewers game, and I would have loved to take them to a Brewers-Cubs game in Milwaukee. And then it hit me like a lightning bolt. I looked at the calendar, and the last game at Miller Park that the Cubs and the Brewers are gonna play until well after we leave, until September, was Trey's birthday. I immediately said, man, wouldn't it be something if the Brewers would somehow allow us to do a reunion?
I've learned, it's better to let somebody else tell you no than to tell yourself no, so I reached out to a coordinator at the USO and just kind of solicited his thoughts and said, Hey, is there any way – do the Brewers do this, do you think they'd be interested in it? He immediately came back and said, "We've got tickets to the game; we'd like you to be the hero of the game. Let me ask about the reunion with the Brewers."
So he talked to some folks at the Brewers, because they had never done one of these before, which I find almost amazing. But logistically, it's difficult. They only play 81 games at home, so to time it, line it up and know well enough in advance when you're gonna be home, it doesn't work out that well.
But fortunately, because I had kind of set the conditions with my boss, and I had a little bit of flexibility of when I could leave, I basically told them, "Hey, I'd like to leave the day before my son's birthday, get in that day and that way I could be home for his birthday." And it just kind of all lined up. And the Brewers were gracious enough to say, yeah, let's do it.
And, honestly, it was until even last Friday, I was very honest with the Brewers, I'm like, "I'm hoping I'm gonna be back, but there's no promises." And it wasn't until we got back, where I looked and said it looks like this will happen. And I started to feel pretty positive about the opportunity.
For the club, if the logistics work, it's a no-brainer for them to want to something like this, right?
Right. And they were incredible. I mean, I was excited, but everybody I talked to at the organization, they were overflowing with joy to be a part of it.
When my wife Rachel and I talked about doing this – first and foremost, our kids miss out on memories with their dad, with me, because I end up being gone, and so we try to make what time we have very memorable – we thought, "This would make an incredible memory."
So it's not about being on the news, because the kids don't really get that. We showed them some of that stuff, being on SportsCenter and MLB Network, and my wife and I understand what that means. The youngest certainly doesn't. My oldest is kind of like, well, that's cool, but I don't know if he really appreciates it.
But the other reason why we decided to do it is these reunions happen hundreds of times a week, all over the country, because we have service members constantly returning from deployment. And a lot of times, they happen out of the public's eye.
Well, if you look at some of the reaction, it just reminds fellow Americans that there are a lot of outstanding military families that put their lives on hold, and that this moment, if we could share with them and they get a little bit of joy out of it is just absolutely ... it's awesome to be able to do.
And we wanted to share it with our community. Rachel and I were both born and raised in Milwaukee, and we thought what a great way to mark the end of this deployment.
Watching the video, you can feel the jubilation when you all are reunited, and there's a sort of empathy, people can appreciate that moment, even if it's just a fraction of what you guys were feeling. You said you really were hoping to be able to do this for Trey on his birthday. This was going to be an incredible moment and memory no matter what; why was it important to you to have it be on a special occasion, on his birthday?
Well, my beautiful bride has always put a premium on making birthdays special for the kids. And it's something that I've learned to really appreciate. She really makes it a special moment. And a lot of times, she does it simply because she knows that I've missed quite a few.
So you want to compensate for that. You're trying to fill that void of, potentially, there may be birthdays in the future, there may be birthdays in the past, where a family member isn't there. And so when you do have the opportunity, making it something just memorable ... You can't put a price on that.
You spend a lot of money on your kids, and, you know, money doesn't buy happiness. But memories and events and experiences that they carry with them, that's what they're gonna remember – about being happy, about their childhood. It isn't the latest video game or electronic device or anything like that that's gonna stand out in their minds. It's going to be these moments. And so that's kind of why we thought we'd look at doing this.
The other reason, too, is we're a military family; we've been through this. Every time my wife and I see one of these reunions, I think I sob worse than she does. Because, like you said, you have that level of empathy.
And I would agree with you to a point, but also say, I don't know if you truly appreciate it – and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. I hope you don't fully understand what it's like because, you know, you shouldn't have to, if you don't choose it.
We chose this life, and I'm not trying to make us sound like martyrs or anything. I don't wanna push that on anybody, because it is the hardest part of my job, being away from the family. This job, I love being in the military, I love being in the Army, I always have. But the hardest part about it is being away from the family. It is the one thing that strains and stresses on our family above and beyond anything else, is just being apart.
So when you are reunited, it's an incredible feeling anyway, and then to make it even more special. It hopefully makes it ... it compensates for the sacrifices that the kids have had to make over the last year to make an event special.
When did you join the Army? It was well before your oldest son was born, right?
Yeah, absolutely. I enlisted in 1992 in the reserves, but I came on active duty in 1995. Once I graduated from UW-Whitewater, I was a member of their ROTC detachment and commissioned out of there as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1995. And I've been on active duty ever since.
And when did you get married?
We got married in 2000. Well, OK, we got married twice, believe it or not. The wedding that we celebrate was May 26 of 2001 – that's when we actually had our ceremony. But we had been married for over a year before that.
The date everybody recognizes and remembers is May 26, 2001. We ran off to the courthouse because I was deployed to Korea for a year and wanted to make sure she was taken care of in the event anything happened while I was gone.
Were you guys always planning on having a family, regardless of what your deployment and service schedule was going to be?
Absolutely. It was never a doubt that we were gonna have a family.
What is that like, balancing your family life and work life, especially when you're away?
Well, I can simply say, I'm married to the greatest woman in the world. People confuse me with the hero because I wear a uniform, but she's my hero. I say that without any hyperbole. I don't know how military spouses do it.
I've got it easy; I leave and I worry about my job. When I leave, she has to do everything. She has to fill what I was doing, she has to be there for the kids, she has to be there for herself, and she's the one that has to bear the burden of – what little bit of free time she has, she's spending it worrying about whether or not something's going on with me, whether or not I'm in harm's way.
So, how they do it, I don't know. And my wife, over the last year, all she did was she worked as a preschool teacher, she finished up her Master's in early childhood development, continued raising two kids, held down the house and was both Dad and Mom and worried about me.
Shit, all I did is my job. She was the one that had it hard.
How has the transition been from Wisconsin to living in Illinois?
Both my wife and I were born and raised in the Milwaukee area. I went to Mukwonago High School. My wife went to Mukwonago High School. She's a Badger graduate, I'm a Warhawk graduate. We met when we were both in college; I actually worked for her parents. They owned a restaurant in Mukwonago and I was working there while my future wife was working there.
Now, we're in DeKalb, Illinois, which is where my last job was at Northern Illinois University. That's where we are right now, until Washington. And it kills me a little bit – I do have Illinois plates on my car, and it kills me every time I have to go into Wisconsin, because people confuse me for one of those invading southerners.
Ah, yes, a FIB.
(laughs) Yes. But we are Wisconsin, born and bred. We will always consider ourselves Wisconsinites.
I'm obligated to ask you this, for myself and on behalf of everyone who has watched the video. That moment at Miller Park – you've snuck up behind your family, you tap Trey on the shoulder and he turns around and it's just total surprise and pure joy. Can you describe what you felt? Can you even put the emotions into words?
(long pause) It's funny. I've been thinking about that moment, but haven't really tried to put it into words. Because it's a whirlwind of thinking about the past year, thinking about our future, just wanting to reach out and grab and hold and hug and squeeze and not wanting to let them go.
Also knowing that it's a surprise, the anticipation of seeing their reaction, it's almost like watching kids open up something on Christmas morning. And the reason you do it is because you want to see that unbridled joy and elation in their face. Knowing the reaction that I got – I got to come home for leave over Christmas, and they were both ecstatic at that moment and just tackled me at the airport – and wanting to see that again and capture it in our minds' eye for posterity, all of that goes through your mind.
And then a slight fear that my oldest was gonna tackle me off the dugout. I was like, I really don't wanna end up on SportsCenter for the wrong reason. But no, it was all of that. And at the end of the day, part of it, too, is just I can't wait to get to this moment so we're back in each other's lives.
You wanna get to that moment, you wanna have that moment because you know it's a gateway to really being together. As special as that moment is, today (Thursday) was ... today was awesome. I made breakfast for the kids and just sitting there, seeing them in their PJs and we're all talking and laughing. And you think about, 36-48 hours ago, I was still in Kuwait. And all that stuff kind of runs through your mind.
I don't know if that answers your question. I hope it does.
That more than answers it. So what happened after the reunion on the dugout?
They gave us seats, but actually very considerate of the Brewers, they gave us a room to go in to collect ourselves and just kind of relax for a little bit, away from everybody.
I'm a huge Brewers fan and I can remember I was at the first game that CC Sabathia pitched for us. I remember the game that put us into the playoffs when Ryan Braun homered to left field. I remember all these crazy games, but I couldn't tell you, even if you put a gun to my head, what happened for the first seven innings of that game. The first time I realized what was going on was when Josh Hader came on in relief in the eighth.
I kind of vaguely remember Cain hitting a home run, but even that, I really wasn't watching. I was looking at my kids and we were laughing and giggling and we were just embracing one another. It was so nice. We had a little side room that the Brewers let us borrow for a couple minutes, and then we came back up to some seats.
I want to thank, again, the USO and the Brewers. The USO is made up largely of volunteers and they support our military forces throughout the world. Everywhere I've gone, basically, in the world, there is a USO manned by volunteers and they are the most gracious individuals.
The USO Wisconsin office was absolutely instrumental in assisting and linking us up with the Brewers and even helping us think about what the options were, what we could do. They're the ones that offered us the hero of the game tickets to begin with, to even start this discussion.
And then of course, the Milwaukee Brewers, they're a business. They're a community icon, but at the end of the day they're a business, and I know that they are constantly inundated with requests to give resources, give time, give energy toward so many worthy causes. And the fact that they were able to support us, it is not lost on us. They don't have to. I would have never looked at them badly if they said, "Hey, we just can't do this." Because it's never expected.
They don't owe us anything, but they were incredibly gracious and they were absolutely nothing but professional about the whole experience. It's important that people realize that they are a business, but they have some fantastic people working for them that took personal care with this, and they took a very human side to this and made it even more of a joy than we thought it was gonna be.
It was such a special moment, obviously for you and your family, and so great that other people could share in it and feel something approaching that level of joy and love.
Here's the other great thing about this that my wife mentioned. She said the thing that we really didn't think about until now was the fact that this was captured so many different locations and has been shared so many times. We can relive this moment over and over and over. Most of the time, we relive it in our mind, but now we have this. We'd love to collect up these memories and keep them for our kids when they're a little bit older, so the videos, the stories, they're so valuable.
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