'It's all training and instinct'
Petty Officer 2nd Class William Harris | Afghanistan | 2009
By DAVID ALLEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 14, 2010
Petty Officer 2nd Class William Harris questions being labeled a hero but relishes having proved a medical corpsman can be a warrior.
The Monroe, Mich., native received two Bronze Stars and a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal — each with a “V” for valor — and a meritorious promotion for his actions during a deployment in Afghanistan.
From October 2008 to September 2009, he participated in more than 60 combat patrols and engaged the enemy more than 50 times.
He was part of a three-man team assigned as embedded trainers with the Afghan National Army in the Korengal Valley, a 6-mile-long valley along the country’s northeast border with Pakistan that U.S. soldiers and Marines have dubbed the Valley of Death.
“I wanted to extend my deployment,” he said during an interview at the Futenma medical clinic. “I loved it.”
When Harris graduated from Monroe High School in June 2003, he didn’t see many choices for his future.
“Being downriver from Detroit, it was either make steel or cars — or do something completely different,” he said. “I chose the medical field, because I wanted to help people.”
Harris said he didn’t know Navy corpsmen served in Marine units.
“But once they told me, and I found out what it would mean, I was definitely into it,” he said.
Following two years working the emergency room at Naval Hospital Great Lakes, Ill., and field training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Harris landed on Okinawa. Four months later, he was headed to Afghanistan. Harris joined Marine Capt. John Farris and Cpl. Mark Madding as Embedded Training Team 5-4. Their main mission was to train Afghan soldiers. Often, Harris said, that meant leading Afghan Army patrols through dangerous terrain to check on small villages scattered through the narrow valley.
The corpsman said each member of the three-man American team learned the others’ roles. He’d often lead the Afghan soldiers on their patrols.
“I taught my two Marines field medicine, and they taught me what they had to do,” Harris recounted. “I thought it wouldn’t be fair for me to say I can’t do this or that because I’m just a doc. Out there, we all had the same job.”
Each morning they would lead a patrol to one of the villages to meet with village leaders. Contact with the enemy was frequent.
Harris earned his first Bronze Star on Jan. 17, 2009.
“After a CH-47 [helicopter] was shot down in the Korengal Valley, [Harris] effectively provided heavy machine-gun support from a MK-19 to ward off the enemy, thereby enabling medevac helicopters to safely fly in the valley to evacuate casualties,” the award citation states.
The Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal was awarded for risking his life on July 1, 2009, to move Afghan soldiers to a safe position and leaving himself vulnerable to enemy fire while he treated a wounded Afghan soldier.
But it’s the incident in which he earned his second Bronze Star that moved Harris to shake his head and smile wanly.
“That was really something else,” he said.
It was July 30, 2009, and his foot patrol headed to the village of Loi Kolay. To get to the village, they had to pass through a 500-meter path they called the Dallas Dash.
Dallas was the name of a nearby fire base, and the dash was one of the most dangerous places in the valley — a steep cliff on one side and a mountain on the other, with no trees for cover.
They received fire when they approached the village and were sure they’d be attacked when they left.
Their departure was up a steep hill, where they began receiving fire, Harris said. With rounds pinging on either side of him, Harris recalled, he and his men reached the top and laid down suppressive fire for the men behind them.
“Then it was the Dallas Dash all over again,” he said.
Harris made it across the gap unscathed and then heard some excited chatter over the radio. A U.S. soldier had been hit back at the start of the trail.
“So I turned around and sprinted across the whole Dallas Dash again,” Harris said. “Later, my corporal tells me the rounds were popping the ground behind me just inches away. Thank God the enemy hadn’t learned to lead their shots.”
The wounded soldier had a serious chest wound and was exposed. Harris and some soldiers dragged him to cover, and then Harris dressed the wound while at the same time directing the fire of the Afghan soldiers.
“It was one of those things where you sit down afterwards and say to yourself, ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ ” Harris said. “It’s all training and instinct, I guess. There’s this tunnel vision you get into. You’re not thinking about the gunshots or anything. You just do what needs to be done.”
Petty Officer 2nd Class William J. Harris is congratulated by a fellow servicemember after Harris received two Bronze Stars, a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, and was meritoriously promoted during a ceremony Feb. 1, 2010 at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa.
Matt Orr/Stars and Stripes