TAMPA — After five combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army Lt. Col. Patrick Morrison recently won one of the most prestigious assignments at U.S. Special Operations Command.
SOCom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, ordered him to London to serve for three years as the command's representative in Great Britain.
It was a dream assignment. SOCom told him he could bring his new wife and her two children from a previous marriage. Morrison might be invited to 10 Downing St., home of the British prime minister. He would work in Britain's highest military and diplomatic circles. The kids, ages 9 and 13, would see Europe.
But the children won't be going to London after all. And Morrison, 46, faces a heartbreaking choice: Does he go to London without his wife and stepkids? Or does he turn down an assignment that would be the pinnacle of a 23-year military career?
Morrison is up against an obstacle he can't budge. His SOCom commander helped plan the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. But now, the world's most powerful military is powerless to help Morrison.
One thing is keeping the two children in Tampa.
Their father's love.
Lynn Kilroy and JP Peterson met in Tallahassee in the early 1990s. Peterson was a sports reporter for the local ABC affiliate. Kilroy was an English major at Florida State University.
Love followed its predictable path. They dated and married and produced two beautiful children — a boy and girl.
Peterson, 48, later worked as sports director for WFLA-TV Ch. 8. But in late 2007, after eight years at the station, he learned his contract would not be renewed. Peterson now hosts the Happy Hour with JP on 1010 CBS Sports Radio.
The same year he left WFLA, Peterson and Kilroy divorced. As with many separations, recriminations followed. Kilroy, who had custody of the kids, said he was often late paying child support. Peterson accused her of trying to alienate him from the children.
The two Tampa residents agree on little, except that neither doubts the other's love of the kids.
Not long after the divorce, Kilroy met Morrison at a Tampa restaurant. She bumped into the Green Beret exiting a restroom.
Kilroy, who married Morrison in December and works for a Tampa public relations firm, said she respects Morrison's love of the Army. It's his passion the way that sports is Peterson's.
And Morrison is good at what he does. So good, he won the London assignment, one of just 10 such SOCom positions globally. The job is part diplomatic, part military liaison. He would assist the British in any way he could, from security planning for the upcoming London Olympics to providing a direct line of communication between the British and SOCom's commander, Adm. William McRaven.
McRaven, who helped plan the mission that killed bin Laden, sat with Morrison last month to talk to him about the new job.
Kilroy was overjoyed. "I was immediately excited by the opportunity," Kilroy said. "Patrick would have a chance to finish out his career on such a high note. And we'd have the opportunity for the children to see another culture and people."
• • •
Reminders of Peterson's children are everywhere in his Davis Islands home. His children each have their own room for visits. Peterson's smartphone overflows with digital photos. Photos of the kids are in every room.
He's active in his kids' lives. He attended the father-daughter dance at her school earlier this year. He talks sports with his son.
"I have the utmost respect for people in the military," Peterson said in an interview. "Obviously, (Morrison) is a fine soldier and he's represented his country bravely. But these are my children. They're the most important things in my life. I don't want to be some absentee dad."
Three years away, even with summer visits, would be devastating, Peterson said.
"I'd miss the most important part of their childhood," he said. "My son would leave a boy and come back a man."
Kilroy and Morrison said they offered Peterson generous visitation. But rather than the five overnights out of every two weeks, his time would come in less frequent, but larger blocks in summer. The total visitation, they said, would not change.
But Peterson said the move would leave him without direct contact with his children for months at a stretch. And email and phone calls, he said, cannot replace physical contact.
He said he sings lullabies to his daughter when she visits. He rubs his son's feet after a tough day playing football. They watch TV together. They have dinners together and are the anchors of each other's lives, Peterson said.
Peterson does not think his kids would adjust well to London. The kids have friends here, school activities they do not want to give up. Football, he said, is the center of his son's life. He will be a starter next season, Peterson said.
"Moving is not going to work with them," he said. "They will not flourish without their father."
• • •
A special kind of heartache stalks cities with military bases.
No parent, civilian or military, is free to relocate children great distances over the objections of a former spouse.
Often, the courts are asked to decide if such moves are in the best interest of the kids.
Attorneys who handle such cases say they are common for military parents because their service forces frequent moves, often thousands of miles away.
A judge's decision can end a military career or force a parent into an unwanted separation from their children.
Patrick Leduc, a Tampa lawyer who handles such cases and a Reserve officer himself, said it can be difficult for a parent to win court approval to relocate.
"It's obviously in the best interest of children to have a mother and father in their life," he said.
Morrison and Kilroy sought the permission of a Hillsborough judge to move. On April 16 — Kilroy and Peterson's wedding anniversary — Judge Daniel Sleet heard the parents' testimony.
"I do believe it's in the best interest of the children in so many ways," Kilroy told the judge. "Not only because it's temporary and is a chance for them to experience living in Europe and getting a chance to see outside of life in Tampa."
She said Peterson would have longer stretches of time in the summer to be with the kids, and that "allows them to have really meaningful extended time with their dad, who they love."
Peterson testified he had sacrificed better paying jobs to stay in Tampa to be close to his kids.
"My father," he said, "left when I was 11 . . . and I swore I would never do that to my children."
On April 20, Judge Sleet refused to allow the kids to relocate. The judge said they could visit their stepfather in London but could not move there.
"The evidence demonstrates that both children are very comfortable in their present environment," the ruling said. "The idea of moving to Europe may be appealing to adolescents, but the reality of uprooting to another continent can be traumatic."
Morrison and Kilroy said the decision, riddled with factual errors, was disrespectful of the military and showed clear bias. Don't the courts and society, they asked, have an obligation to military families who give up so much to serve?
Peterson felt relief.
• • •
Morrison reached a decision on London last weekend. It was the hardest decision of his life. He turned down the assignment.
"Being separated from my family is not something I want to put them through," Morrison said. "Lynn's a tough gal. But she's got a breaking point."
Morrison said he may soon retire. With London out, he will eventually become eligible for an assignment he knows all too well.
His sixth combat tour — in Afghanistan.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.