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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reluctant soldier, unhesitating hero: Corporal Tony Harris to be awarded the Medal of Military Valour

 Dec 12, 2011 – 10:21 PM ET Last Updated: Dec 13, 2011 3:40 AM ET

Courtesy Tony Harris
Courtesy Tony Harris
Then-Private Tony Harris in Afghanistan. He will be receiving the Medal of Military Valour in Ottawa on Tuesday.
Tony Harris was a kid without a plan. His mother will tell you he was going nowhere, fast, just spinning his wheels through post-high school life in Pennfield Ridge, N.B.
Drinking. Drugging. Partying too much and listening to his friends instead of listening to his folks and the voice of reason in his head, the one that was telling him what he needed to do.
“I had no direction,” says Tony Jr. “I think I always knew that I was going to join the military. But when it came time I needed a push from my Dad.”
Tony Sr., a former air force man, describes the push as more of an ultimatum. “He had no option, not with me he didn’t.”
On Tuesday, Tony Jr. — now Corporal Harris, and living in Edmonton — will stand before Governor General David Johnston, who will present him with the Medal of Military Valour at a ceremony in Ottawa.
Courtesy of the Harris family
A Dec 2011 handout photo of Private Tony Harris.
Save for the Victoria Cross and the Star of Valour, it is the highest honour a Canadian soldier can receive. In earning it, Cpl. Harris joins an exclusive club with about 75 members, total, since it was created.
He is being honoured for his actions of Nov. 23, 2009. At the time, he was stationed at Forward Operating Base Wilson, in Panjawi District. A dusty Afghan nowhere surrounded by a vast emptiness crawling with bad guys.
The corporal was a lowly private then, in a motorized support unit. His job, each day, was refueling the vehicles. Task complete, he retired to the mess tent and grabbed a plate of noodles.
Then he heard a “boom.” And then he heard screams. And then he started running. Not away. Toward the blast.
“If you think about it, in a situation like that, it is kind of stupid running toward an explosion. Or you would think it was, but something just clicked in my mind. I wasn’t thinking.”
He was not wearing a helmet or a flak jacket either. Taliban bombs were falling; an empty shipping container that doubled as accommodation had been blasted to bits.
There was blood everywhere. Smoke. Screams. Six men were wounded. A seventh was dead. In war movies, time slows down. For Private Harris, time became a blur. He was acting, reacting, yanking an American from the burning, twisted metal wreck, tying off his severed femoral artery and lugging him across a 200-metre stretch of open ground before going back to grab another one.
“We were moving pretty quickly,” Cpl. Harris says, laughing. “I definitely didn’t want to be out there. Nobody did. It is strange. I didn’t really remember a thing about what happened until I was sitting in an armoured vehicle afterwards and having a cigarette.
“I was shaking all over. I had blood on my boots and blood on my pants. One of my buddies brought me a bag of Doritos — and then I was all good — but I couldn’t talk about it.”
The Medal of Military Valour "shall be awarded for an act of valour or devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy."
Others did. Word got around. Reports were written. Recommendations made.
Tony is a different man than the one that left Pennfield Ridge. He is 28, and an Afghanistan veteran. In a quiet moment at home in Edmonton, in between stringing up Christmas lights with his partner, Kate Cooke, and packing for that special trip to Ottawa, he insists any soldier he served with would have done the same thing he did.
Try calling him a hero, and he will try changing the subject.
“I was just doing my job.”
Tony Sr., and his Mom, Sari, will be at the ceremony. They are incredibly proud.
“He could have been killed,” Ms. Harris says. “As a Momma, I am just glad I didn’t know what he was doing over there.”
Cpl. Harris says he would go back to Afghanistan in a heartbeat. No push required. He is a kid that was going nowhere, a kid that turned out to be a hero.
“I didn’t expect to get anything for what I did,” Cpl. Harris says. “I don’t need any accolades. It is a great honour and if you want to give me a medal — that is great.
“But if nothing had ever come of it, I would know in my heart that I did what I did. And that’s what helps me sleep at night.”
National Post
• Email: joconnor@nationalpost.com

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