Jeff “Rock” Harris refuses to display his medals and honors in his Kinston home.
He tries to keep the awards — three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, 23 Army Commendation Medals, 31 Army Achievement Medals, six Overseas Service ribbons for combat, an award from the emperor of Saudi Arabia, along with several dozen others, he acquired during his time as a U.S. Army Ranger — packed away. However, those around him refuse to let him forget how important his time in the military was.
Harris — an executive security specialist at Down East Protection Systems in Kinston, personal trainer, self-defense instructor and a bodybuilding judge — doesn’t want credit for the bravery and valor he exhibited serving his country.
In fact, he didn’t even want to have any part of a big-budget, Hollywood movie that recounted one of his most eventful and memorable days in the Army.
“Black Hawk Down,” based on the Mark Bowden’s book by the same name, was nominated for four Academy Awards, won two and grossed $172,989,651 worldwide after its release in late 2001.
The movie, based on true events from Operation Restore Hope, takes place Oct. 3, 1993, when American troops were sent into Bakara Market in Mogadishu, Somalia. Their mission was to capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s officers to stop his regime from starving the nation’s people.
U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers were sent on Black Hawk helicopters and Humvees on a mission expected to only take a couple of hours. They ended up fighting what seemed like the entire city into the next day, losing 19 U.S. soldiers in the process.
Harris, a sniper with the Rangers, came close to being one of the casualties of Mogadishu.
Harris found out about the movie when Ridley Scott, co-producer and director, and his production company started hounding him for his account of the bloody day. But he refused to contribute.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to talk about it (but) it’s a sore spot for a lot of us,” Harris said. “It’s not just because we were losing people and the whole horror of it — that was the third time I went to combat, so it wasn’t a surprise for me. It was just the way it happened, what went down. … A lot of guys got out (of the Army) after that who otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Though Scott’s company kept asking for his input, Harris answered every time with a resounding “no.” Scott nonetheless promised the movie would ring true to the day’s events, be more like a documentary — and most importantly — would honor the soldiers lost in Somalia.
“I didn’t even care if my name was even mentioned,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure the people who did the most there, those who gave up the most, were shown the most honor.”
Despite receiving several movie passes and an invitation to see a special screening at Fort Bragg, Harris didn’t watch the movie until he could view it on his own time.
“I finally watched the movie for first time after it came out on DVD, just so I can take a break if I needed to,” Harris said. “I don’t want to say that I was pleased because it’s not a pleasing thing to watch, but the rendition of it was what (Scott) said. He kept his word about it.”
The timeline of the movie strayed from the day’s actual events, and some character-switching, including his own, stood out, too.
In a bloody scene in the middle of the movie, a young soldier’s leg is blown off, opening his femoral artery. In pain and bleeding heavily, the young man’s strained face relaxes and he dies.
“That would have been me,” Harris said. “I got shot, and cut my femoral artery, but we got out the next morning. I lived, but that wouldn’t have been as good of a story line.”
Though Harris still has both legs, he sustained a scar on his leg after a bullet punctured his shin, traveled up his leg, cut his artery and hit his spine, earning him his third Purple Heart, and almost ending his mobility.
“(The bullet is) still in my spine — it’s still in my lower back,” Harris said. “I wasn’t supposed to walk again. I was paralyzed for almost 20 months.”
Medical experts still aren’t completely sure how he overcame his paralysis, but Harris, a member of Grace Fellowship Baptist Church, credits it all to God.
“The day I left Walter Reed (Army Medical Center), they said I would have maybe an 8 percent chance (to walk again),” Harris said. “I never accepted that. … I’m a very blessed guy.”
Harris earned his two other Purple Hearts after being shot in Panama trying to capture Manuel Noriega and after being shot again in Desert Storm.
“It’s different every time (someone shoots at you),” Harris said. “It’s just as scary every time. You don’t ever get used to it.”
Harris wasn’t always on the receiving end of the bullet, something that makes him uncomfortable to this day.
“I have 316 confirmed kills as a sniper, and that’s only in that last three years I was in the Army,”
Harris said. “Every one of those horrifies me regularly because they were somebody’s children, somebody’s husband or father.”
He still feels conflicted about what he had to do, but in the end, he knew it was his duty as a sworn soldier.
“They’re bad people and they’ve done bad things, but who am I to take that away from them?” he asked. “But it was my job to do. Lives were safer because of that — but it’s never easy.”
Leave no man behind
James Murphy served in the Army as a Ranger with Harris and said he wouldn’t be alive if not for Harris’ heroic actions. Murphy recalled after he and another soldier were hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Mogadishu, Harris ran to their position and carried both of them a half-mile away “not knowing if we were alive or not.” He drove them to safety in a burning vehicle and returned to continue to fight.
“If you know him, you are privileged,” Murphy said. “If you served with him, you were in the presence of a true American patriot. If he is your friend, you should be honored. He gives hope to humanity that there are still decent, amazing people all around you.”
Just a regular guy
Harris said despite everything he has seen and the blessings he has received, he considers himself a down-to-earth person.
“I’m just as normal, laid back a person as there is. I’ve just had extraordinary experiences,” he said. “I’ve got a great wife (Amanda), and I’m alive. I’m healthy, and probably much more healthy than I should be at 46.”
Harris is especially lucky after having several medical scares, including having prostate cancer four times in the past six years and a brain tumor.
Harris, who is in remission from cancer, said he doesn’t mind talking about his past illnesses, but he doesn’t publicize it because of the way people treat him after finding out.
“They look at you like you’re already dead. … My overall personality is doing for other people rather than myself,” Harris said. “That’s part of my military (background). That’s the thing that it teaches you. You don’t want to be a hero, you don’t want to get credit all the time. A lot of people know me, and a lot of people know where I come from, but a lot of people don’t know my whole story, because I don’t advertise that.”
Harris said he takes every opportunity to thank those who have ever donned a uniform, from friends and veterans Jerry Core of Kinston, Klebear Northrup and James Anthony to Joseph Seabright, a coworker of Harris’ who is deploying next week.
“I don’t pass a soldier without saying ‘thank you,’ ” he said. “I don’t tell them who I am. I just tell him ‘thank you.’ ”
Every military holiday, Harris remembers and recognizes the soldiers who fought by his side, especially the 64 in his units who lost their lives.
“I will always, as long as I’m able to, recognize those guys first,” he said. “I don’t have problems talking about the stuff I’ve experienced. I think it’s good therapy for me.”
Harris said thanking a soldier and showing him or her support is a simple gesture that goes a long way.
“It’s unbelievably important … just to go say thank you,” he said. “Put yourself in their position. Just a ‘thank you’ is tremendous.”
Though he has been through much in his 46 years, he has kept his faith and wouldn’t take any of his experiences back for the world.
“I’m thankful everyday I went through it,” Harris said. “As hard as it was, I would have stayed in for 30 years. That was my niche, what I was supposed to be doing … where I’m at, the direction I’m in today is because of somebody else’s plan.”
Jane Moon is at 252-559-1082 or [email protected]
19 U.S. soldiers who died in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope
CWO Donovan Briley
Staff Sgt. Daniel Busch
Spec. James Cavaco
Staff Sgt. William Cleveland
Staff Sgt. Thomas Field
Sgt. First Class Earl Fillmore
CWO Raymond Frank
Master Sgt. Gary Gordon
Sgt. Cornell Houston
Sgt. Casey Joyce
Pro. Richard Kowalski
Pro. James Martin
Master Sgt. Tim ‘Griz’ Martin
Sgt. Dominick Pilla
Sgt. First Class Matt Rierson
Sgt. Lorenzo Ruiz
Sgt. First Class Randy Shughart
Cpl. Jamie Smith
CWO Cliff ‘Elvis’ Wolcott
Jeff ‘Rock’ Harris’ military achievements:
Three Purple Hearts, Silver Star for Valor, two Bronze Stars for Valor, Soldier’s Medal, 23 Army Commendations, 31 Army Achievement Medals
, Southwest Asia Service Medal with 3 Bronze Battle Stars, Kuwait Liberation Medal, NCOPD, Good Conduct Medal, Overseas Service Medal National Defense Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Distinguished Service Cross
, Jumpmaster, Air Assault, Pathfinder, Sniper and Expert Weapons Qualification
Source: Harris’ DD214 Form