Fortunate son

May 21, 2014

By David Hayes

Randy Harrison emerged from the Vietnam War unscathed, but with a new appreciation for life

By David Hayes Randy Harrison hugs his dog Burfoot inside his Squak Mountain home. Over his shoulder is a print commemorating one of Harrison’s missions that went wrong yet garnered a Congressional Medal of Honor for helicopter pilot James Fleming, who evacuated Harrison’s squad under heavy fire from North Vietnamese.

By David Hayes
Randy Harrison hugs his dog Burfoot inside his Squak Mountain home. Over his shoulder is a print commemorating one of Harrison’s missions that went wrong yet garnered a Congressional Medal of Honor for helicopter pilot James Fleming, who evacuated Harrison’s squad under heavy fire from North Vietnamese.

Randy Harrison is fascinated by history.

The well-read, 69-year-old Squak Mountain resident is especially interested in Homer’s “The Iliad.”

“Everybody knows about Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon and Paris. All the characters you hear about,” Harrison said. “Every now and then, if you read Homer, there’s one guy mentioned, one soldier who did something, not the big characters.

“I thought maybe if I kept a good record of this, maybe in 500 years someone will stumble across this, in a safe somewhere, and say, ‘Wow, here’s a daily firsthand thing, by this guy.’”

So, Harrison kept a journal during the Vietnam War. Never mind that was verboten for an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Group.

It wasn’t the first time the brash, young man that Harrison was skirted the Army’s regulations. The son of a career Air Force pilot, growing up in a military culture, Harrison had always wanted to follow his father’s path.

“He was my role model, my hero,” Harrison said.

Unfortunately, the Air Force Academy required perfect vision for pilots. Harrison’s hovered around 2,400 uncorrected.

The tip of the spear

After years adrift taking college courses, Harrison decided to steer his life right and enlist in the Army infantry.

“If I can’t be on the tip of the spear, I don’t want” anything else, he said. “The tip of the spear for the Army is the infantry.”

He didn’t tell his parents until after he enlisted and he didn’t tell the second recruitment center he wore contacts.

During a final physical for officer candidate school, however, an astute physician, a captain who happened to be an eye doctor, took one look at his record and asked the obvious, “Do you wear contacts?”

Harrison knew he was busted.

“I take them out, and I couldn’t see the wall, much less an eye chart,” he said.

The only duty the doctor could approve for Harrison was quartermaster or judge advocate, any paper shuffling assignment. Just not combat.

Undeterred, Harrison tossed his record into the trash bin at the rear of the medical facility.

When his first sergeant asked a few days later if he knew where his file was, he answered truthfully, “I don’t know.”

The sergeant pulled out a new file, filled in a few blanks, scribbled an illegible signature and put it away.

“Bingo. Done,” said Harrison, happy he was headed for Airborne training.


Don’t volunteer for SOG

At a competitive time for officer candidates trying to get into Special Forces Intelligence, he signed up for a one-year course in Vietnamese language that guaranteed a slot in Special Forces in the Vietnam 5th Group.

Preparing to leave, a sergeant friend with three tours in Vietnam under his belt told Harrison the only thing he had to remember was don’t volunteer for SOG.

“‘You don’t have to know what it is. Just don’t volunteer for it,’ he told me.”

A year and a half later, finally in Vietnam in August 1968, standing in the adjutant general’s office, waiting for assignment, he was asked, “You speak five languages? Including Vietnamese? You ever think about SOG?”

“I have trained all this time, I don’t know what it is, only that I was told if you join SOG you die,” Harrison said. “I’m not going start my time here by chickening out. So, I said, ‘OK.’”

SOG’s cover name was “studies and observation group.” Harrison said it was actually a special operations group that performed deep, recon missions in Cambodia, observing the enemy’s activities across the recognized border.

“Technically, they were illegal missions,” he said.

When Harrison agreed to take command of the recon company, he said he had the audacity to tell his superiors he would only take the job if he could take missions, too.

“The motto of infantry school, which is the best leadership motto for corporate, family or soldiers, is two words — follow me,” Harrison said. “I can’t send anyone into that inferno unless I go myself, to understand conditions, see how individual teams operate and know what additional training they needed or what was not working. They basically said, ‘OK.’”

The six-man squad’s assignments were either five-day insertions where they observed an area, or 10-day insertions where they observed a river or road.

“There were times we were so close to the enemy, I could hear them and write down what there were saying,” he said.


Extremely fortunate

Despite his best preparations, Harrison said his unit had the highest sustained casualty rate (unavailability for combat due to injury or death) in American history — more than 100 percent.

Harrison said in all his time in Vietnam, he was extremely fortunate to avoid the casualty list.

Once, he was allowed to return to the states to take care of a “Dear John” letter situation. Another time, he missed a mission to give the senior officers a briefing. Both times, his replacement “took a bullet meant for me.”

He recently gave a eulogy in Spokane and reunited with three fellow soldiers, who’d received grievous wounds in Vietnam.

“Sitting there looking at these guys with permanent wounds, I realized I put in 27 months Vietnam and never got a scratch,” Harrison said.

To this day, he wears a bracelet bearing the name Harold W. Kroske. Another friend who was killed in the line of duty, Harrison uses it to remind himself of how things could have turned out differently.

“Unfortunately, I tend to be impatient, a characteristic I guess I have,” he said. “So, I wear this to remind myself, every day, several times a day, how incredibly, indescribably fortunate I am.”


On the A-team

Harrison rode the wave of his good fortune to prosperous careers, including as a foreign correspondent for the Orlando Sentinel and a 20-year stint in public relations for The Boeing Co.

When Harrison came out west to take that position, he didn’t know anybody. To find other like-minded souls, and since his kids from his first marriage were out of the house, he decided to give public service back to the country he so believes in. He visited the recruiter’s office on Gilman Boulevard and at age 44, he enlisted in the Army Reserve, signing on with the Special Forces Group. This time, he had to go in a sergeant, on an A-team.

“I was a year older than the A-team leader’s father,” Harrison said. “Hey, but one weekend a month, I got to jump out of airplanes, blow stuff up, fire automatic weapons and drink beer.”

During his tenure with the unit, the first Gulf War ignited. While individual members of his Reserve unit volunteered to participate in operations, the unit itself was never recalled to active duty. Harrison said a number of his guys subsequently went on to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan operations as part of civilian security contractors.


I’m too old for this

In about 1994, when it was time to re-up, he changed his mind.

During a routine night training mission, after jumping out of a plane over Fort Lewis, he looked down.

“You’re not supposed to look down, but everybody does,” he said.

It looked like he was heading straight for a big tree.

“Not a good thing,” he added.

He wiggled his parachute straps to maneuver around the tree, but only managed to inadvertently turn into the wind, a much worse situation that accelerated him uncontrollably to Earth.

“I hit the ground so hard, I knocked myself out. I knocked the webbing out of my helmet,” he said. “I was out cold.”

When he finally came to minutes later, the airplane had circled around and was making preparations to drop a second lift of parachutists.

He got up, looking for the tree that caused his woes, only to discover he had landed in an empty field. In the low light, he had mistaken something flat and circular on the ground for a tree.

“I pranged the hell out of myself and thought that this was a sign,” Harrison said. “I’m too old for this.”

That was his last jump. He decided then and there that the United States Army no longer needed his services.

He has since remarried, retired and written a novel, “West From Yesterday,” just to prove he could. These days, among voracious reading, he remains active as a master docent for the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery and is a chairman on the city’s Development Commission.

Harrison said his journals have been used by other authors, both with permission and without, to good affect and bad. Although just one of his sons has asked to read them, he keeps them locked up in a safe, ready to be discovered in 500 years, ready to recount the tales of just one little guy who played his part in a big war.

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