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Though they never got to serve in battle together, retired Lt. Col. John D. Harrill Jr., left, said one of the biggest thrills of his life was commissioning his son, John D. Harrill III, into the Marines after graduation from Auburn in 1993.
Courtesy photo
Though they never got to serve in battle together, retired Lt. Col. John D. Harrill Jr., left, said one of the biggest thrills of his life was commissioning his son, John D. Harrill III, into the Marines after graduation from Auburn in 1993.

Decorated father and son to share patriotism award

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com · 340-2395

Gloria Harrill’s two favorite colors ought to be bronze and silver.

What other woman can associate those hues with rare courage and leadership displayed by not only her husband, but also her son?

Both received credit for saving lives by their quick and accurate commands while under great duress: John D. Harrill Jr., 65, received a Bronze Star with valor for courageous actions in Vietnam, and John D. Harrill III, 37, received a Silver Star with valor for gallant service during seven months of fighting in Iraq.

“I’ve always been proud of them,” she said, indicating heroic acts in combat didn’t heighten her admiration for them.

Maybe that’s because this year’s recipients of the Audie Murphy Patriotism Award showed the same characteristics growing up and being a family as they did on the battlefields.

The soldiers who fought under them would tell of clear-minded leadership through long hours of intense fighting. Despite overwhelming odds, when battles ended with the Harrills in command, Marines had inflicted heavy casualties, while suffering far fewer.

This is the first time the honor has gone to a father and son. It’s hardly surprising. Not many succeeding generations of soldiers see combat, let alone distinguish themselves in battle.

It raises questions: Was their ability to command men in combat, keep cool under fire, charge into enemy fire with no regard for their safety, something the father passed on to the son through good parenting? Was it genetics? Perhaps, a bit of both.

Harrill Jr. shrugs.

“I guess we probably all see ourselves, if we were put in that situation, that we would be tough, that we would be great soldiers,” he said. “But the truth is you never really know, until you’re actually under fire.”

Harrill Jr., who retired as a lieutenant colonel and now lives in Huntsville, seemed surprised at what he accomplished in battle, but that’s partially because he never planned a military career.

He volunteered after college to beat the draft and choose his branch of the service.

He did, however, show signs of soldiering ability, namely fearlessness and determination, while growing up in South Carolina.

He came from a family of modest means as his father only had a sixth-grade education. He said his father taught him the value of hard work, but Harrill Jr. was determined to improve his lot by going to college.

Six years of delivering newspapers only paid for one year at nearby Presbyterian College. Football was his ticket to a better future.

But as much as he lacked money, he was more lacking in size. He walked on as a 145-pound middle linebacker and soon earned the nickname “Scrap Iron” for tenacity and hard hitting.

His coach gave him a full scholarship his sophomore season.

Unlike his father, Harrill III knew he wanted to be a Marine since he was a child. Like his father, determination helped overcome his obstacles.

“He thrives under pressure,” Harrill Jr. said of his son.

He excelled at wrestling and JROTC, which his father taught, and earned an appointment to the Naval Academy. He made it through one year at Annapolis before calculus sank him.

“Struggling with math, that’s the one thing I know he got from me,” Harrill Jr. said.

The setback didn’t sink Harrill III’s dreams, his father said, and he enrolled at Auburn University, earning a degree in English.

Mrs. Harrill thinks both her husband and son have fearless genes or at least an innate desire to take chances.

When her husband was a boy, he jumped off the roof holding a World War II parachute his father brought home. Her son never tried that fete, but he did take some high leaps with his bicycle off homemade ramps.

“I can remember when he was barely more than a toddler, while we were stationed in Hawaii, he walked out to the very edge of a cliff, must have been 300 feet high, and just stood there looking down,” his mother said.

“It scared me to death but he was like, ‘Wow!’ ”

Only child

Harrill III is an only child, and his parents said they had concerns the lack of siblings would hinder learning to share and that getting their undivided attention would spoil their son.

“But you know, he was always sharing his things with the kids in the neighborhood. He’d let them play with his toys first,” she said.

“When a neighbor had a yard sale, he always asked for money so he could buy me jewelry or something. He never wanted anything for himself.”

Harrill III, now assigned at Quantico, Va., attributes his behavior to growing up in the Marine way of life.

“Dad was gone a lot, but I knew he was serving something higher than himself,” he said.

What success means

“I liked that and I came to see that being a successful person was not how much money can you make, but how much can you do for your fellow Marine, your fellow man and your country.”

Both Harrill III and his father said they feel awkward receiving the award.

Harrill III said the men who served under him and were “in the knife fights everyday” are more deserving, and that he didn’t act any braver than them.

“This award, we are
able to accept it, because it’s a patriotism award,” Harrill
Jr. said. “We are patriots, but neither one of us feels like a hero.

“At the same time, we’re humbled,” he said, “because we know anyone who has served this country are super patriots.

Courage under fire

Lt. Col. John D. Harrill Jr. received the Bronze Star with V for valor in Vietnam and his son, Maj. John D. Harrill III, received the Silver Star with V for valor in Iraq.

The following are excerpts from their presidential citations:

Bronze Star

For meritorious service while serving with friendly (South Vietnam) forces engaged in armed conflict against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communist aggressors in the Republic of Vietnam from June 1970 to June 1971 ... (While engaged with the enemy) Capt. John D. Harrill Jr. skillfully coordinated all United States supporting arms, including tactical air, helicopter gunships and artillery in addition to re-supply and medical evacuation support. His outstanding effectiveness in this regard greatly increased the morale and combat efficiency of the Vietnamese Marines and contributed immeasurably to their ultimate success during combat operations ... Throughout his tour, he performed his duties under the threat of enemy terrorist squads and rocket and mortar attacks.

Silver Star

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while serving as operations officer, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment ... in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from February to September 2004. Maj. John D. Harrill III’s leadership and heroism while under fire contributed materially to the battalion’s success in preventing the fall of Ar Ramadi, Iraq. Throughout the enemy attacks and offensive operations, he calmly led the battalion command element and coordinated maneuver of the battalion’s command units, while personally neutralizing enemy automatic weapon and rocket-propelled grenade fire, resulting in the enemy’s defeat.

During a major insurgent attack against coalition forces, Maj. Harrill led the forward command element into the aim point of the enemy attack. Despite constant enemy fire, he focused the combat power of six companies as they battled in eight separate locations during a seven-hour period. Maj. Harrill’s superior tactical acumen enabled the complete destruction of assaulting enemy forces.

Paul Huggins

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