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Cadet killed in 'tragic' West Point accident was from West Orange, NJ

The followup to the fatal training incident came the next day, when the cadet's identity was released. I worked with my colleauge, Joshua Jongsma, to tell that side of the story. This story had more than 300,000 views, as it ran on the USA Today home page.

WEST POINT — Christopher James "C.J." Morgan, of the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2020, was the cadet killed when his transport vehicle overturned on the way to summer training on Thursday.

The vehicle rollover happened in the summer training grounds in the mountains west of West Point.

“Cadet Morgan was a valued member of the Corps of Cadets and will be missed by all. The entire community is ensuring that our cadets are being cared for physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” said Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, 60th Superintendent, U. S. Military Academy. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Morgan family.”  

Morgan, 22, of West Orange, New Jersey, died at the scene of the accident. He was a law and legal studies major, and a recruited athlete who was a standout member of the Army wrestling team, according to a West Point news release. 

Speaking to reporters outside his West Orange home Friday, Morgan's father said his attitude made him a perfect son.

"He was easy to deal with," the elder Christopher Morgan said. "He was nice, he was respectful. He was kind. He was a pleasure to be around." 

Morgan's Army wrestling coach, Kevin Ward, said in a statement: "We are devastated by the news of Chris’ passing. He was a talented, hardworking, and determined athlete who loved his sport. Chris had an infectious personality with a smile big enough to fill any room, and a heart big enough to love everyone around him. He made everyone around him better and he will be greatly missed.” 

Morgan attended West Orange High School, where he excelled in wrestling and football and placed fifth in the NJSIAA Individual Wrestling Championships in Atlantic City in 2015, according to 2016 press release by the West Orange school district. He was also co-captain of the football team and a Cadet Second Lieutenant in the high school's Junior Air Force ROTC program.

His father showed off his "brag book" on Friday, the binder chronicling his son's talent. Every sports parent has one, he said.

"Wrestling wasn't all he did, but it was a big part of what he did," the elder Christopher Morgan said.

Morgan had two younger sisters and a younger brother. His brother, Colin Morgan, won an appointment to West Point and is scheduled to become a member of the class of 2023. The new "plebe class" of first-year West Point students reports on July 1.

Leading the way to West Point

After graduating, Morgan spent a year at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School, according to the district. He received his appointment to West Point in June 2016.

He told the district that he would continue wrestling and was interested in studying political science, foreign affairs and the global economy.

“Whether or not I remain in the Army as a career officer, I want to work in Homeland Security," he said.

The Corps of Cadets will hold a vigil to honor Morgan Friday night. A memorial ceremony for the West Point community and private funeral service will be held at the academy next week.

Morgan was the first student from West Orange to go to West Point. Vanessa Lettmen, a family friend, will also attend West Point after graduating high school this year.

"He opened the doors for a number of us going there," Lettmen said. Two other West Orange 2019 graduates will attend West Point, bringing the total to four. "The type of person that he is just makes it seem like a place to go."

The Morgan family proudly displays the West Point heritage on their front yard. A sign planted in front of the house says, "The proud home of a West Point cadet."

It was unclear whether the Morgan family will choose to have their fallen cadet buried in the West Point Cemetery, the resting place for soldiers and cadets dating back to the American Revolution.

Investigation under way   

It will take a long time to find out exactly what happened on that hilly dirt road.

Lt. Col. Chris Ophardt, the academy's public information officer, said a safety team from Fort Rucker, Alabama, was being dispatched to West Point "to do an assessment safety investigation and answer a lot of the questions about speed, curve, number of people in the vehicle."

Ophardt said he might have preliminary information on the incident in 90 days, but an official report has to go through the Pentagon and won't likely be ready for at least a year. 

Shortly before 7 a.m. Thursday, somewhere between Camp Buckner and Camp Natural Bridge in the mountains about 6 miles west of West Point, a 5-ton Light Medium Tactical Vehicle transporting 20 cadets to land-navigation training rolled over.

The vehicle was driven by a soldier from Fort Benning, Georgia, accompanied by a fellow Benning soldier in the cab. The LMTV has a truck cab and a bed in back with two long benches where the soldiers sit facing each other. It has a soft canopy cover. 

Within minutes of the news that it was Morgan who was killed in the crash, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey took a moment from a public meeting to honor the fallen Morgan.

“Just to recognize that while this is an extraordinary achievement, there’s always risk involved,” Menendez said. “Yesterday, unfortunately, we had a tragedy at West Point – a cadet who happens to be, I found out, from New Jersey is the one who lost his life. I’d ask you to join me in a moment of silence to recognize him.”

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker called Morgan by his nickname.

“My deepest condolences go out to the family and friends of West Point Cadet 'C.J.' Morgan," Booker said in a statement. "It is always tragic when a life ends too early, but in the short time he had, 'C.J.' dedicated himself to his country and leaves behind a legacy of courage and sacrifice. He embodied the best of what New Jersey — and our country — has to offer, and represented our state with distinction at West Point.”

His father appreciated the support he received from his local New Jersey community and beyond. 

"This is day two. And I know it’s not going to get any better. I do believe though that it’s time to go on in order to make us stronger."

'Realistic environment'

At Thursday's briefing, Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, the academy's superintendent would not discuss where Morgan was sitting in the vehicle. He would, likewise, not discuss any particulars of the accident, the speed of the vehicle, whether that particular LMTV was equipped to carry 20 cadets.

Williams said the vehicle was carrying 20 cadets, but Ophardt said later it was not clear how many cadets were in the vehicle.  All of the other cadets, and the two Fort Benning soldiers, were treated at local hospitals, for non-life-threatening injuries, from facial lacerations to broken bones.

Ophardt said the cadets were likely wearing fatigues and Kevlar helmets

The vehicle overturned along a dirt road in a mountainous terrain used, Williams said,  to "make sure our soldiers and cadets are trained in a realistic environment."

The training group involved in the accident was being transported on a dirt road over mountainous Hudson Valley terrain from their barracks at Camp Buckner to Camp Natural Bridge to an area called "the lanes," where they were to practice land-navigation skills, assessing topography and using a compass. Camp Natural Bridge is about two miles from Route 293 and six miles west of the main campus of the military academy.

Ophardt said the cadets in the affected training group will stand down for 24 hours and have access to grief counselors and the chaplain. Meanwhile, training continued for other cadets on Thursday, which was the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. In the hours after the fatal rollover, machine-gun fire and artillery blasts could be heard echoing among the Hudson Valley mountains.

The mountains around West Point are home to summer training, where rising seniors live in barracks at Camp Buckner and rotate among different training regimens, from small-arms fire and artillery to land-navigation. 

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