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Veterans’ Reflections: ‘A Means to Another End’

By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2010 – Chris Harris didn’t see the military as an end, but rather as a means to another end, when he accepted an ROTC scholarship to Duke University.

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Retired Navy Cmdr. Chris Harris stands at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., July 15, 2010. DOD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class William Selby

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Now, 26 years after retiring as a Navy commander, he looks back on his career fondly, even if he didn’t expect to be a career sailor.

“At the time I went in, I didn’t know if I was going to stay, but I ended up getting there and enjoying it and spent 20 years doing a lot of different jobs and having a good time,” Harris said.

Harris was here with his grandchildren, seeing the sights and touring the memorials on the National Mall. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial holds special significance, he said, because he spent 21 months in Vietnam during the mid-1960s.

“The grandkids haven’t been here before. That’s why we’re here today,” Harris said. “They need to understand that a lot of people sacrificed a lot in the past for the fact that they have the freedoms they have today. They need to understand that these memorials are here for those people.”

Now a resident of Chocowinity, N.C., Harris said the Navy lived up to its old promise: Join the Navy and see the world. His career in the Navy’s Supply Corps took him to Italy, Thailand and Japan, in addition to Vietnam. But it wasn’t the variety of locales that made his career exciting, he said. Rather, it was the variety of tasks he was assigned.

“It’s an amazing experience to go out and do a lot of different things and get a lot of responsibility early in your career,” he said. “My time in Vietnam is a case in point. I was a young [lieutenant junior grade] at the time over there, and I was running a lot of food service operations and feeding a lot of troops. You can’t always do things like that as a civilian.”

Harris went to Vietnam twice -– once aboard a ship on a six-month tour and once ashore for 15 months in 1966 and 1967. He was assigned to be a food service officer, something he’d never done before. Learning on the job can be harrowing for anyone, he noted, let alone having the responsibility of feeding thousands of hungry sailors in the Da Nang area and supplying forward operators near the demilitarized zone of the then-divided country.

“I went over there with no experience in food service, but found out that you can run a food service organization letting the technical people handle a lot of the work, and I looked after the people and organization,” he said. “It was interesting from that perspective.”

It was this aspect of the job -- being put into a place initially unfamiliar and forced to adapt -- that stuck with him, he said, noting that it helped him to appreciate the value of education. Today’s servicemembers, he said, shouldn’t take opportunities for education for granted and should appreciate the chances they get to learn.

“The best thing I can tell people who are serving in the Navy right now is to do your job well, learn from your experience [and] advance,” he said. “You can always study in the Navy and get better educated and get more diverse jobs, more responsible jobs, and move up the ladder. Be involved, and enjoy what you’re doing.”

Though Harris said he didn’t plan to do anything in particular on this year’s Veterans Day, he keeps today’s servicemembers in mind and hopes many veterans can come home safely to celebrate with him in the future.

“We’re mindful of the fact that there are still a lot of troops serving and a lot of people are dying, and we remember them at that time,” he said.

Harris said young people should consider the military as a viable career option. Although he didn’t initially intend to spend 20 years in uniform, he said, he has no regrets about his decision to serve. As a parent and grandparent, he added, he encourages young people to look into ROTC or enlistment as, at the very least, a good first step in a career.

Choosing a military career is “a very good way to go,” Harris said.

(“Veterans’ Reflections” is a collection of stories of men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day conflicts. They will be posted throughout November in honor of Veterans Day.)


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