For Army Sgt. Jon Morita, his two tours left him with painful reminders of his service — a surgically repaired hand, shrapnel in his elbow and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But for Veterans Day, he doesn’t plan to dwell on that.
He actually started his celebration Friday, the first order of business, going to Denny’s for the free breakfast.
“Some of (the restaurants) have stipulations, a lot of places make you buy something in order to get something free — but Denny’s gives an actually straight-out, free, legitimate breakfast,” he said, “so that’s where I’m going.”
The class of 2003 Valencia High grad who played center for the Vikings football team knew he was meant to be a veteran for as long as he can remember.
There’s the time when he was old enough to be in kindergarten, but remembers being mesmerized by the soundtrack while secretly watching “Apocalypse Now.”
The desire to dress up as a Confederate war general for Halloween seemed to draw some confusion from his parents, as his mom has Mexican and European roots, and his grandfather fought for the Japanese Imperial Army before migrating to the United States.
“I don’t know where that comes from,” said his mother, Christine Morita, in a profile that ran in The Signal just after Jon Morita returned from his combat tours in 2009. “If you look at the both of us, I don’t know what (part of our) gene pool is in the South. … He’s got to be an old soul, if you believe in that sort of thing.”
The childhood memories of watching Civil War re-enactments up at Fort Tejon stirred up a strong sense of nationalism in the young boy, who knew what he was going to do as soon as he could. Enlist.
Now Morita is grateful to be alive and able to work his job at the Valencia Best Buy, after what he’s been through during his two tours.
“Veterans Day is for everybody, including the fallen,” he said, explaining the difference for him, between Veterans Day and the more solemn Memorial Day, “but it’s definitely for (those of) us who are still kicking, I guess.”
He survived a Ramadi hotel explosion that ended up going viral after the video of a building he was in as it was getting blown up was turned into a propaganda film for terrorists.
Related story: After the smoke cleared
He lost a friend, Lance Corporal Ricky Slocum, whom he was on a team with in little league baseball. Slocum was killed in the line of duty in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
More recently, Morita was given another reminder through his testimony at the sentencing phase of the military tribunal for Bowe Bergdahl.
Morita testified last week on the injuries he sustained while looking for Bergdahl, which were chronicled in the 2009 Signal story.
Morita’s unit was scouting villages in Afghanistan, his second deployment, where the fighting was more intense and the enemy better-trained than in Iraq, when a rocket-propelled grenade smashed his rifle out of his hand.
While the grenade’s failure to explode probably spared his life, it mangled a thumb and index finger which have been surgically repaired, but still don’t work the same.
Related story: Injured soldier recovers
“I still can’t make an ‘L’ properly,” he said Thursday, demonstrating the difference in dexterity between his right and left hand.
Morita’s testimony was sought by the prosecution to demonstrate the consequences of Bergdahl’s decision to walk away from his unit while he was serving in the war-torn region. The prosecution argued that Bergdahl was responsible for the injuries to Morita’s unit because they were caused by his decision to leave his post, which prompted the resulting search and injuries.
Bergdahl was ultimately captured and returned to America after President Barack Obama traded five Taliban leaders for his return in 2014.
Bergdahl ended up avoiding jail time with a sentence of a dishonorable discharge, despite emotional testimony from the wife of Master Sgt. Mark Allen, who shared about how she has to put her hand in her husband’s for them to hold hands, because a head injury left him in need of daily care throughout his life.
Morita still seethes when he thinks about the situation, evidenced in how he recalled a description of himself in a recent national news account when he saw Bergdahl at the trial.
“They said I shot him a ‘withering stare,’” Morita said, “That wasn’t just withering, those were daggers coming out of my eyes.”
Like many veterans, despite the injuries he sustained that provide reminders of his sacrifice every day, Morita would do it all over again in a heartbeat, he said.
He might not make the city of Santa Clarita’s ceremony to honor veterans at the Veterans Historical Plaza on Saturday at 11 a.m., but he leaves little doubt of where his mind will be.
“We weren’t looking to be heroes or regarded as such. We do our job — no more, no less. It’s about the men that we lost,” Morita said, “Those guys are the true heroes. And I can guarantee there isn’t a day goes by that we don’t remember our fallen.”