A Corbin father and son, both bestowed with Silver Stars for gallantry in two separate wars, will be featured on the cable news channel CNN Jan. 30.
Thirty-two-year-old Jonathan Harris, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army, and his father Gary, a veteran of the Vietnam War, are a rarity among military families. The Silver Star – which is the third highest honor that can be earned by a U.S. soldier – is rarely obtained, much less by a father and son duo. Gary Harris earned his while a U.S.Army Sgt. in 1969. His son was given the award the day after Thanksgiving last year for helping to fend off an insurgent attack following the downing of his UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter during a mission in Afghanistan last July. He was the first aviator since the Vietnam War to receive the honor.
“I really don’t consider myself a hero … honestly, the only thing I was thinking about was what I had to do to get my crew out of there. I think a lot of it was instinct mixed with my training,” Jonathan Harris said. “For me, I feel like my grandfathers and my dad, those are the true heroes.”
Gary Harris said the U.S. Army did things a little different when he left the armed forces in the 1970s. They simply mailed him his Silver Star with a letter. But an official ceremony was held last November for both he and his son at Fort Campbell. Both were given Silver Stars.
“I think the difference between these guys today and us back then is that we were all drafted and they are all volunteers,” Gary Harris said. “These guys really stick together. We did the same thing, but I don’t think we were near as cohesive a group as they are. They are really gung ho about taking care of each other.”
As a squad leader in Company B, 4th Battalion, 3d Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade, Gary Harris was recommended for a Silver Star by Colonel T.H. Tackaberry for his actions on August 15, 1969. According to the citation, Harris and his company were located near Go Rieng when they “came under intense hostile mortar and rocket fire, followed by a fierce ground attack from a determined enemy force.” After ordering the soldiers under him to return fire and moving them to a different position, he volunteered to man a strategic portion of their perimeter that was weakened by the assault. Under fire, he ran across an open area to assist a combat medic in treating wounded soldiers all the while ignoring gunfire. He helped to get the wounded to Medevac helicopters as they arrived on site, saving many lives.
“I never felt like a hero, to be truthful,” Harris said, recounting the events. “We just kind of figured we wouldn’t make it out of there. Everyone around us was getting killed. I understand what my son went through. I just trembled all over when I heard what happened to him. I know what it is like, every day facing death. It just tears your nerves all to pieces for awhile.”
According to the citation for Jonathan Harris’ Silver Star, he was “Pilot-in-Command” of an air assault “in order to kill or capture a known mid-level Taliban commander operating in the vicinity of Gardez, Afghanistan.” The ground force commander of the operation had called for extraction, and then changed the extraction point to where troops were originally inserted. Insurgents appeared and unleashed a barrage of fire on his helicopter, downing it with three rocket-propelled grenades and with fire from an anti-aircraft gun system. He flew the wounded aircraft clear of the shooting and landed in a field. Harris protected his crew chief, who had been wounded by shrapnel, and killed at least one insurgent. He suppressed the enemy with gunfire until all personnel were evacuated on another helicopter.
Jonathan Harris has done a total of three tours of duty – twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. He originally left high school at age 17 to join the U.S. Marines. He re-enlisted in the U.S. Army to follow his dream of flying helicopters.
Currently, he is working on a military base in Alabama training future pilots. That will last for three to four years, and then he could be redeployed again if necessary.
“The thing is, we signed up to do this job and I am a career soldier. You never want to go to war. It is a terrible thing. You do it. It’s part of your commitment to do it. I would much rather be at home with my wife.”
Jonathan Harris said he never dreamed he would receive a Silver Star when he signed up for military service, but said he is most happy for his father, who finally got a proper ceremony for earning his.
“The support they got back then is not nearly like it is today. I was happy we were able to do it together and the Vietnam Vets were able to see that,” Harris said. “I think he is a very brave man. I hope my actions are somewhat like his. I would like to think that was something passed on to me. I see my dad as a hero.”