Story by Sgt. Christopher Calvert
When Vietnam veteran John L. Harris opened his apartment door on a bleak March morning in 2007, he saw standing in front of him the worst nightmare of every service member’s parent – soldiers in Class A dress with somber expressions.
Every day since he has dedicated his life to helping parents across the U.S. face such tragedy, while continuing the healing process for himself.
John L. Harris enlisted in 1969 as an armor crewman, where he would go on to serve for two decades, including a tour of Vietnam from 1971 to 1972 with Headquarters and Headquarter Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, as a Bell UH-1 Iroquois (Huey) door gunner.
“We were the first bird to arrive at the landing zone and the last one to leave,” Harris said. “We usually flew for 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry’s commander and his soldiers. If any of his units received contact we would go and immediately pick the commander up.”
During his combat tour, Harris was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his actions in rescuing crewmembers off a fallen Boeing AH-6 while being engaged by multiple enemy sources.
“If we were fired upon, we would pop red smoke to let friendly’s know what to expect,” Harris said. “We never left a soldier behind, no matter what, and those crewmembers were no exception.”
After leaving active duty, Harris began settling down in Colorado and was married to his wife, Deborah, in 1982. They would go on to have their only child, Blake A. Harris, on April 25, 1984.
Immediately young Blake began imitating his father who he would often see in uniform at a young and impressionable age, Harris noted.
“He was a good kid, and he wanted to be like me,” Harris said. “He would see me in my uniform when he was a child and I think that rubbed off on him, as he always wanted to be a soldier like me when he was growing up.”
Blake grew up in Central Colorado and would go on to graduate from Pueblo South High School, Colorado in 2002. He was then sent to Fort Benning, Ga. as part of the delayed entry program, where he began his training as an indirect fire infantryman.
“I didn’t hear from him much during training, but I saw him during his [advanced individual training] graduation and even had the chance to pin his blue cord on,” Harris said. “He said he enjoyed being in, and I was proud of him, and still am.”
After leaving Fort Benning, Blake was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, where he showed up at reception with a small clerical error in his paperwork, which prevented him from having a unit of assignment.
“Once Blake got there, he didn’t have a unit to report to,” Harris explained. “So he told the receptionist his father was in the Cav. The receptionist quipped back, ‘Once Cav always Cav,’ and he was sent to 3rd Brigade, 2-7 Cav.”
Upon arriving to the unit, Blake was deployed a year later to Iraq in 2005 where he would provide crucial support to the Marines in Fallujah.
“He’d call me once in a while and he sounded so upbeat,” Harris said. “He’d tell me he was helping people out, and that he was doing great things which weren’t always being reported on the news. He liked is to so much he even reenlisted over there.”
After redeploying, Blake wed his girlfriend he knew since high school in Pueblo, and they had had son, Jonah, Oct. 31, 2004.
“He came back from his deployment and he got married in Pueblo, which he was so excited about,” Harris said. “After his leave was over, we loaded up his truck and I helped him move to Copperas Cove, Texas. He was so happy during this time; he was following in the footsteps of his father, just as he always wanted to.”
Shortly after coming back to Texas, 2-7 Cav was redesignated 1-12 Cav, and a short time later Blake received orders he was heading back to Iraq for a year to serve at Forward Operating Base Warhorse.
“Before deploying again, Blake came and visited me for two or three days, and we just goofed off and had a blast,” Harris said. “It was then that he told me if anything happened to him, he wanted me to be in charge of his remains. It made me feel unnerved, but I didn’t ask any further questions about it; I assumed it would never happen to me.”
On March 5th, 2007, 22-year-old Sgt. Blake A. Harris was killed in action in Baqubah, Iraq, by a command detonated improvised explosive device, while providing support as part of a security detail to VIPs, much like his dad before him did countless times with the Cav in Vietnam.
“At nine that morning, I received a buzz at my apartment door, and when I looked out I saw a captain and a sergeant first class in Class A’s,” Harris said. “I knew what they were here for, but I assumed they had to be here for someone else even though they buzzed my specific apartment. I just knew they couldn’t be here for me; I was in instant denial.”
After grieving with family members and friends, Harris said he experienced every emotion possible during this troubling time.
“I felt angry, I was hurt, at one point I even thought why did it have to happen to me,” Harris explained. “I went through the full gamut of emotions before realizing I needed to find a way to carry on and do something in Blake’s memory that could also help parents who are experiencing this same pain.”
In efforts to self-heal, Harris joined the Denver chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders in March 2007, where he has made a commitment to attend every military funeral in the local area to show his support.
“I’m still going through rough times myself, but talking to families and providing support to others really seems to be therapeutic not only to them, but to myself as well,” Harris said. “I even created a patch that says ‘All gave some, my son/daughter gave all’ that I pass out to the parents at funerals.”
Harris recently attended the 1st Cav. Div. Association’s 66th Annual Reunion, where he had the opportunity to visit soldiers in Blake’s old unit, as well as interact with Cav leadership.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” Harris said. “Everyone was very professional and I had the opportunity to interact with several soldiers, including the commanding general and sergeant major. It made my day to know members and leadership of his old unit still remember him and his fellow fallen warriors.”