By Morgan Jones | Photos by Chris Pound
To honor the fallen soldiers of his unit, Jeff Morris and his close-knit group of friends established Legion 8, an intense CrossFit Hero Workout of the Day, or WOD, routine to be preformed yearly in memory of those who were lost.
CrossFit is recently popular strength and conditioning brand that offers participants WODs to get in better physical shape.
“It’s a brutal work out. Very, very hard,” Morris says. “You look at it on paper and you think, ‘That won’t be that bad.’ While it’s completely different than the training we do in the military, the whole idea is the same in that you just have to keep going.”
The Legion 8 workout consists of eight rounds of eight different exercises with eight repetitions each. The exercises range from chest bars to clapping pushups to toe bar pull-ups for an average 50-minute exhausting workout. The CrossFit challenge is dedicated to the men who served in Morris’ Bravo Company in Baghdad, Iraq, and were unable to make it back home to their loved ones.
“The idea behind Hero WODs is they are supposed to hurt,” says John Wilmoth, CrossFit trainer and friend of Morris. “They are supposed to be long, not just seven-minute workouts. We wanted to get Jeff’s story out there and make it real to people. We wanted to find a way to honor these eight men that gave their life along side Jeff for our country.”
Since a young age, Morris knew he wanted to serve in the military. Having grown up in on the beach of Destin, Fla., and knowing how to swim like a fish, he aspired to be a Navy SEAL. However, he thought his dream was crushed after a serious football injury that decommissioned his shoulder after extensive surgery. He went to work as a financial consult in Florida and later buyer for CarMax in Dallas. Morris still had a yearning to apply for commission.
“I did the corporate American thing for a few years,” Morris says. “But I still had that itch of wanting to serve. I got a good job, making good money. I should have been happy where I was at, but I just felt like I never fulfilled this dream of mine.”
Morris tried to ignore his childhood dream until the terrorist attack of 9-11, which landed him in the Army recruiting office two days after the attack.
By March 2004, Morris was sent to Iraq as a platoon leader where he would serve his first deployment. By the end of his first deployment, his task force had earned more Purple Heart medals than any other team since the Vietnam War.
For his second deployment, Morris was offered the commander position of the same unit and served with a group of men who had become more like brothers to him through friendships that were built on respect and camaraderie.
“I think we did have a very special bond from the deployment,” Morris says. “We went through so much together and you can’t help but become close.”
While in Iraq in 2007, during Operation Freedom Iraqi II, Morris’ Bravo Company (Company B), 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team and 1st Cavalry Division), better known as The Legion, underwent months of patrolling through Al Razul, Baghdad’s city streets.
For the men of The Legion unit, March 15 is a day that will never be forgotten because of the terror that tore through the lives of six of the brave soldiers. One of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles of the bravo unit was hit by road side bomb, injuring several in its path. Staff Sgt. Terry W. Prater, SSG Blake M. Harris, SSG Ryan P. Green, SSG Emerson N. Brand, SSG Nicholas Lightner and Specialist James L. Arnold broke out to investigate the site when a second boom exploded, killing four instantly. SSG Green died three days later, and SSG Lightner died six days later from their injuries sustained.
“No one knows how they would react in a situation like that” Morris says. “You just have to go with that inherent fight or flight instinct. Its mental discipline: If you mentally prepare yourself the best possible, you will be OK. You may not be able to completely prepare yourself, but if you train a certain way, then when bad things happen, maybe come under fire, you have to have the mental know how.”
On April 4, 2007, Spc. James Coon was shot by a sniper, followed by Sgt. Calbe Christopher, who was killed by an explosive formed projectile. This line of war casualties are the men of Legion 8.
“Dealing with the loss of life and the worries back at home, you have to focus and not let it get to you,” Morris says. “It’s a chapter of my life that I will never forget, but it’s not necessarily something I want to live again. To do something like that, and move forward, that’s the stuff that shapes me but doesn’t define me.”
After 68 months of service in the Army and two deployments, Morris decided to retire and return home – with three Bronze Star medals (one for each deployment and a Bronze Star Medal with Valor from a heroic mission during his first deployment) – to Colorado to his son, Cole.
“I had all these things in me that I want to accomplish, but that was the kid side of me,” Morris says. “I realized that being a father was the most important thing. While I had my own selfish desires, my son always comes first. That was really what helped me get out.”
Because of his military background, Morris earned a position as a spine consultant for the Tyler area for Medtronic to be close to his son, who lives in Austin. For the first year in Tyler, Morris had trouble adjusting to the city’s social scene, until he meet John and Charity Wilmoth, who plugged him into the Premier CrossFit family of Chris Hughes and the owners of Premier, Cune and Michelle Pena.
“It’s weird. I have always found myself talking about it with the guys that I went through it with,” Morris says. “I never really opened up to other people about it.”
Over time, Morris opened up to Chris Hughes and John Wilmoth about his experience with the men of The Legion.
“The goal in the beginning was to get as many people as possible to understand what Jeff went through,” Hughes says. “It is a terrible story and these are the stories that we never hear. People have things to say about the war. It’s stories like this that make people say, OK maybe they really do need funding, maybe they really do need more support.”
In June of this past year, Wilmoth took it upon himself to develop an initial Hero WOD routine with Morris’ support that Hughes tweaked for the final exercise flow.
“Everybody was really excited about it. I don’t think they knew how big it was going to turn out,” Hughes says. “What I like about Legion 8 is it will definitely expose any weakness in a CrossFitter because there is Olympic lifting, vertical pushups, toe bars, clapping pushups and more. If you have any weakness, it will find it.”
Hughes then worked with Morris on pairing each movement with one of the fallen men that became known as Legion 8 Hero WOD.
“That’s kind of how this whole process worked. Other people came up with ideas and then they would come to me and ask if I blessed off on it,” Morris says. “This was for those guys that I was deployed with, and since I had the personal relationship with them, they wanted me to be happy with it.”
With little time to prepare for the first Legion 8 event in July, the more than 50 participants who endured through the brutal workout came as a surprise to the development team.
“That day was incredible. I mean, it really was,” Wilmoth says. “The goal is to put yourselves through a millionth of the amount of discomfort those men might go through on a normal day over there, and you just have to be prepared for that.”
Because of the high difficulty level of the Legion 8 routine, the workout could be divided between teams that could consist of two to four people.
Participants paid an entry fee of $25, which included a T-shirt and lunch. Mel Morgan planned the event, and Fran Morgan designed the T-shirts and logo.
“What I want people to get out of this event is, yeah, the war is fresh in their head because they see it in the news, but they have to think about the people that are still going to be affected by this for the rest of their life,” Morris says.
Because of the powerful results of their first event, the continued expanding interest from other hopeful future participants and the desire to continue to share Morris’ story, the Tyler Premier CrossFit box is going through the necessary process with the National CrossFit Company to get Legion 8 nationally recognized. Premier plans to host the second annual Legion 8 event this coming March.
Interested participants and spectators can visit the Premier CrossFit website to gather more details of this year’s event.
“People out there hear about bad things happening over there on the news all the time and they believe in it, but it’s not really real until they have someone like me standing in front of them to tell them about it,” Morris says. “That day it was funny because the first thing everybody said is ‘I won’t do that again until next year.’ It is a once a year kind of workout but is so worth it.”
For more information visit: www.legion8.com.
8 ROUNDS, 8 REPS
TERRY | THRUSTERS
BLAKE | CHEST TO BAR PULL-UPS
EMERSON | CLAPPING PUSH-UPS
RYAN | POWER SNATCH
COON | KNEE TO ELBOW
DOC | SDHP
CALEB | HSPU
JIMMY | TOES TO BAR
FINISH WITH 800M RUN