Local veteran’s failed suicide leads to creation of Heroes Outreach Program

Dan Field
Local veteran’s failed suicide leads to the creation of the Heroes Outreach Program.

When John Morlock woke up from a medically induced coma, he saw his concerned but loving parents at his bedside. He was groggy after three weeks under medication, but as his senses began to return he thought to himself:

“I knew God had saved me for a reason, but I wasn’t sure what that reason was,” he recalls more than 20 years later. “But I knew He saved me for a reason.”

The year was 1998, a year after he had retired from the U.S. Army. He carried a lot of emotional baggage after being a combat medic in several theaters and later as a communications technician. Morlock joined the Army right out of high school at 17 and he would go on to serve in the first Gulf War. He also served in Somalia and other areas that remain classified. He trained as a combat medic and later as a communications specialist.

“I was more interested in saving my fellow soldier rather than killing the enemy, so I trained to become a combat medic,” Morlock explained. He served six years in that gruesome role before he decided to retrain as a communications specialist.

Morlock suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) with recurring violent nightmares. His wife left him and his sons for a couple of months and then returned to file for divorce.

“I had no one to talk to. The thought of waking up screaming from a nightmare and realizing I was alone; it was too much. It pushed me to the edge,” he says.

So, at the darkest moment of his life, he sat on the edge of a bed with a .357 magnum under his chin and pulled the trigger. The sound alerted his wife in the other room, who called for help.

“I died twice in the ambulance and once on the operating table,” Morlock says. “I didn’t attempt suicide, I committed suicide.”

But God prevailed because, as Morlock says, He had a plan for him.

The damage to Morlock’s face and forehead was extensive. There is no outward evidence that anything happened, but the blast tore out most of his teeth, blew off the end of his tongue, damaged an eye and left him with no sense of taste or smell. Surgeons have been able to repair most of the damage, and Morlock learned just recently that the VA – after turning him down for 20 years – would pay for repairing his teeth. Of course, COVID-19 put a hold on that.

And so the healing – both physically and emotionally -- began.

“I said, okay, I don’t know what my purpose is now but I knew I had to be patient,” he recalled. “I knew God would answer.”

In 2016, after three failed marriages and his “suicide,” he learned that more than 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Immediately after hearing that, he knew instantly what plan God had in store for him.

“I thought back to my experiences, to what led me to suicide and what would have stopped me from reaching that point,” he recalled.

In 2016, he founded the non-profit Heroes Outreach Program. Be A Hero, Save A Hero is the motto of the multi-county organization. And that’s just what he and his fellow veterans do several times a week. They talk.

But they rarely talk about their combat experiences. They talk about their families, what they’ve been doing, what projects they’ve undertaken. They socialize and they connect. The conversation is simple but valuable.

The Heroes Outreach Program meets for “Gatherings” in five central-Missouri locations. There’s no structure to the “Gatherings” but rather just a time for veterans and their families to talk about life. Of course, politics and COVID-19 have been the most popular topics of discussion.

“Being in the company of others who have been through what you’ve been through is massively therapeutic,” Morlock explains. “The veteran has already made peace in his soul with the possibility of not surviving because of the job he had to do. Being able to talk to someone who has been there can help.”

A HOPe (Heroes Outreach Program) brochure shares this motto: Strength in Brotherhood. Connecting veterans with other veterans build peer support networks that renew the camaraderie and brotherhood veterans felt while in the service. The connection can mean the difference between depression and isolation or inclusion and belonging.

Would Morlock have attempted suicide had a program like this been available?

“No. It was the desperation of solitude that led me to that fateful moment. Had this program existed then, I would not have felt that desperation.” he said.

Four years after its inception, the gatherings are growing in popularity. At first, only a few veterans showed up. Now, the program has grown to the point Morlock is making plans to start a chapter in Springfield. Problem is, it takes money and a commitment to move forward.

Veterans and their families get free meals at each of the gatherings so the meals have to be funded somehow. Donations and sometimes money from Morlock’s own pocket have kept HOPe alive. Some veterans’ groups, businesses and individuals in the lake area have chipped in, and the Community Foundation of the Lake donated $1.000 recently.

But they need more.

“What we really need are some continuous donations. You know, just a little bit from a few people every month to help keep the program going. Right now, we just have two individuals administering the program, myself and Pam Gilligan (HOP secretary). Subsequently, I have to spend a large amount of my time seeking out new sources of funds instead of being out there to help the veterans.

“I have to tell you, we wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for Chuck and Trish Vernon who owned the Maple Street Café in Eldon,” Morlock explained. “They let me hold the gatherings there and catered every Gathering and they did it for free. They even gave me a key to the building so we could use the restaurant when they weren’t open. If it wasn’t for them, the program wouldn’t exist today. They are great, Christian people.”

The nonprofit does much more than just hold the Gatherings. They have put a homeless vet up in a hotel for four days while they went to job interviews in the area. Morlock has driven a veteran from the Truman VA Medical Center in Columbia to a VA hospital in Topeka Kan. The veteran was able to get into the program on short notice but had to be there the next day. Morlock drove him up in his own vehicle.

They have purchased clothes and shoes for vets who found themselves homeless following the tornadoes a couple of years ago. John and Pam are always available to lend an ear and a hand to any veteran who needs help. If they can’t help them, they will find someone who can. But again, all of this takes money. There have been many times in the past four years the funds were not available for the program, but they have never turned away a veteran who needs help.

The program meets:

Monday mornings, 9-10:30 a.m., The Gathering Place, California

Monday evenings, 6-7:30 p.m., Pioneer Café, Versailles

Wednesday mornings, 9-10:30 a.m., Disabled American Veterans, Jefferson City

Wednesday evenings, 6-7:30 p.m., Golden Corral, Osage Beach

Thursday evenings, 6-7:30 p.m., Silver Dollars Restaurant, Eldon

Any veteran and/or a family member is welcome to attend any of the Gatherings.

You can contact Morlock, the program administrator, at 800-514-6670.

HOPe also has a board of directors. They are Morlock, president; Shelly Norris, vice president; Bobby Medlin, treasurer; Pam Gilligan, secretary.

In addition to funding as a major challenge, Morlock said volunteer help is the other need. There is only so much two people can do, even IF they had the funding. Anyone wishing to help with HOPe’s mission of reducing the suicide rate among veterans is encouraged to reach out.

The Heroes Outreach Program is a nonprofit designed to address the veteran suicide rate in the United States. It has contact information for veterans who find themselves on the verge of suicide, or who might need counseling.

“If you or your buddy are in immediate danger, call 911. Do not take any chances. It’s better to make an unnecessary call than to lose another veteran,” HOPe literature urges.