Fort Meade's leader faces challenges

February 20, 1994|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writer

The painting shows five American soldiers and their lieutenant, members of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment who were cut off from their unit on a Sicilian hillside on July 10, 1943.

They were lost. Surrounded. One suffered a broken leg.

But all survived.

"The Beginning" hangs behind the desk of Col. Robert G. Morris III, garrison commander of Fort Meade.

It hangs there because it depicts Colonel Morris' two strategies for success: work and focus. Both will be needed in the coming months, as the fort faces change and conflict.

Fort Meade is evolving from the training and overseas transit center it had been since World War I to a center for education and home to a wide array of intelligence offices. Before Colonel Morris took over in July, it was the target of investigations involving allegations of fraud, waste, racism and environmental abuses.

Meanwhile, Colonel Morris is being investigated by the 1st U.S. Army Inspector General after anonymous complaints that he used obscene language and told lurid stories about nurses last year to civilian audiences.

"This assignment, which has had its unpleasantries, is a learning experience," Colonel Morris said of his time at the fort.

In the long run, he said, the investigations will have a positive effect. People will see that when problems are brought to his attention, he will try to correct them and ensure that everyone involved has the benefit of due process.

Throughout his career, Colonel Morris said, he has faced many challengers, "lots of naysayers, lots of people who said I could not do [something]. But I decided I could."

"He always had a clear idea of where he was going," said James Kelleher, an English professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, who taught Colonel Morris when he was one of a handful of African-American cadets at the Pennsylvania Military School.

Now, more than 1,100 civilians and almost 500 troops report to Colonel Morris. He also must manage an installation the size of a small city, overseeing the infrastructure used daily by an estimated 37,850 people who live at Fort Meade or work for the military or one of the fort's civilian tenants.

The population of Fort Meade is expected to reach 50,000 to 60,000, as new tenants such as the Environmental Protection Agency move on base.

The son of a military doctor and grandson of an Army chaplain, Colonel Morris said that he knew when he was "about 2" that he wanted to be a soldier. He spent his Chicago childhood building military models and watching war movies. His goal as a teen-ager was to be a platoon commander.

He's accomplished that and more. During Operation Desert Storm, he was a battalion commander, leading the 2nd Battalion, 18th Field Artillery into Iraq.

He holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the Pennsylvania Military College and master's degree in personnel management from Central Michigan University.

He is a decorated Army Ranger, with citations that include the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal with oak-leaf cluster.

Doing "the right thing" comes up frequently in his conversation. He mentions his unpopular decision last year to support a proposal to locate a prison boot camp on the north edge of Fort Meade.

"I did what I thought was right," he said.

Not everyone agrees with what he's accomplished. Fort Meade employee Charles M. Johnson complained Friday that Colonel Morris is not doing enough to clean up the situation at the post.

"He talks a good game, but he's not doing anything," said Mr. Johnson, who recently was demoted from his position as supply systems analyst. He claims his demotion was a reprisal for leaking information about abuses at the post to legislators and the press, and his case is now pending before the Office of Special Counsel.

Retired Maj. Gen James F. Hamlet, a former deputy inspector general for the Army, is a Morris supporter. Their relationship reaches back to Colonel Morris's stint as adviser to the New Jersey National Guard.

"If people knew the record he's achieved," he said, "they'd realize what a jewel of a person they have in Bob Morris."

General Hamlet said Colonel Morris faced a tricky assignment in New Jersey demanding strong leadership, and was so successful that Lt. Gen. James H. Johnson, who has since retired, handpicked him to "straighten out" Fort Meade.

He said he was not surprised that Colonel Morris has drawn criticism.

"When a person moves into a situation that has been rife with fraud, waste and abuse and tries to correct that, he will be subject to some criticism," he said.

African-Americans learn, Colonel Morris said, that to make it in this world, "We just have to be better."

"Life is not filled with gifts," the colonel said. "Life is filled with earnings, and sometimes you don't get what you earn."

One beauty of the military, he says, is that, "In the final analysis, when you are better, you are recognized appropriately. The system recognizes hard workers."

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