|Two memorials have been installed at Swampscott High School for two former students, who died in Iraq. This one is in the main lobby. Marine Captain Jennifer J. Harris (shown), class of 1996, was killed February 7, 2007. Army Specialist Jared J. Raymond, class of 2004, was killed September 19, 2006. (Globe Staff Photo / Pat Greenhouse)|
Among her fellow Marines and in Swampscott, memories of a friend in life and in flight endure on Veterans Day
When a Marine lay wounded on a battlefield in Iraq, Captain Jennifer J. Harris flew her Sea Knight helicopter into the night sky.
Her final mission came in daylight. She volunteered to transport blood supplies, but insurgents shot down her chopper, killing Harris just days before she was to return home to Swampscott.
"At first she was told 'No. You're too close to leaving,' " said Jim Schultz, a friend who is also the Swampscott veterans agent. "But she said, 'I want to fly one more time in Iraq in the daylight.' A lot of her missions had been at night. So, [her superiors] reluctantly agreed."
Harris died on Feb. 7, along with six other crew members. A graduate of the US Naval Academy, Harris was the first Massachusetts woman killed in the Iraq war and has been the lone female casualty of the elite helicopter squadron, the Purple Foxes. On flying missions, she used the radio moniker "The Dove." Harris, who would have turned 29 on Nov. 6, was on her third tour of duty in Iraq.
This Veterans Day, local Marines are honoring her service and sacrifice.
The Marine Corps League Captain Jennifer J. Harris Detachment 871, a veterans organization, was to be dedicated last night during the 232d Marine Corps Birthday Ball in Lynn. The 70-member organization, based in Swampscott, was founded in 1994 as the North Shore Marine Corps League Detachment 871. A new charter was to be signed, and a flag unfurled, with Harris's family, friends, and fellow pilots looking on.
"She loved the Marine Corps," said Schultz, a league board member. "She was a member of our detachment. Jen signed up right after she got out of the academy."
Harris - the only child of Raymond and Rosalie Harris - is one of 15 servicemen and women from communities north of Boston who have died as a result of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001. They were fathers and sons, newlyweds and fiances. They graduated from top service academies and vocational high schools. They faced enemy fire in desert terrain and rugged mountains. They are buried at Arlington National Cemetery and in family plots at local cemeteries. The oldest was 43 and the youngest 19.
At Swampscott High, Harris, a 1996 graduate, is remembered along with Army Specialist Jared J. Raymond. Raymond, 20, a member of the class of 2005, died Sept. 19, 2006 in Iraq after a roadside bomb hit his vehicle. The new high school that opened in September includes two memorials for the native son and daughter.
A glass case in the school lobby has their photographs, and American flags once flown in Washington, in their honor. Outside the gymnasium, brass plaques with their names and service dates adorn granite stones. Town squares, less than a quarter-mile in each direction from the new school, are named for them.
"It's like they're guarding the school," said Schultz. "I wanted them there, so that the kids going to school every day would think of them."
Larry Murphy, principal of Swampscott High School, said the memorials are a fitting tribute. "Once you're a part of Big Blue," he said, noting the school's nickname, "you're a part of Big Blue for life."
Murphy, the principal for just two years, did not know Harris or Raymond. "But there are seniors who remember Jared when he was here, and teachers who taught Jen," he said. "It's painful. . . . It's like an open wound."
Friends described Harris as smart and outgoing. Stephanie Hanson of Portland, Ore., got to know her as part of her quest to have combat wings posthumously awarded to her father, Gary Norman Young, a Purple Fox killed on Feb. 7, 1969, in a helicopter crash in Vietnam.
Harris's helicopter was shot down 38 years to the day Young died. It was carrying an American flag being flown in Young's honor.
"It could have gone out on any mission, " Hanson, 38, said by telephone from Portland. "When I heard [on the radio] that a helicopter went down, I just thought, 'It can't be a Fox helicopter. Honestly, I wasn't thinking about the flag. I was just thinking, 'The fates wouldn't do this on this day.' "
Master Gunnery Sergeant John Sakowicz, a Purple Fox who served two tours of duty with Harris in Iraq, said the flag wasn't supposed to be on Harris's chopper. "Another pilot was supposed to fly it, but he forgot to take it," Sakowicz, 45, a Lawrence native, said in a telephone interview from Camp Pendleton in California. "He recommended I give it to Captain Harris, because [her helicopter] was next in position to go out."
One day, and one flag, now unites the Purple Foxes in grief. "I think of my friends and comrades I have lost," said Sakowicz, the maintenance chief, who said he knew Harris for three years. "Captain Harris was always upbeat. Very dedicated to what she was doing with the Marine Corps."
The new Captain Jennifer J. Harris veterans post will immortalize her among fellow Marines. "The school memorial and the square, that's the town remembering her," said Schultz, a retired Marine. "But this is her brothers and sisters remembering her. These are her comrades, the people who were, and are, Marines."
After Harris died in February, members of the post voted unanimously to change its name to honor her. When Harris's second deployment to Iraq ended, the post held a welcome home party.
"She talked for almost three hours, mostly about what was going on [in Iraq]," Schultz recalled. "She was confident, happy."
A few weeks before she died, Schultz shipped Harris a care package. She sent back a thank-you card, with T-shirts from the Purple Foxes squadron. "That was so typical of Jen," said Schultz, who is also a Swampscott police detective. "She was always giving to others. She was very well brought up."
After graduating from the Naval Academy in 2000, Harris completed Marine flight training school. "Jennifer was always looking for a challenge," Schultz said. "She had an incredible ability to fly helicopters. She was focused, and would tackle any mission."
But Harris also followed her heart. "Jennifer was an overachiever, not because she was pushed into it," Schultz said. "She wanted to make her parents proud, but really, she made us all proud."
Rosalie Harris declined to talk with a reporter about her daughter or the Marine Corps League's tribute.
A gold star - a symbol of a lost son or daughter in combat - hangs in the window of the Harris family home. American and Marine Corps flags fly from a flagpole in the yard. Small American flags are placed along a post-and-beam fence in front of the house.
Some 100 yards away, on a rocky knoll, tiny American and Marine Corps flags, pink flowers, and two small pumpkins surround a granite stone. A bronze plaque with the Marine Corps emblem salutes a fallen neighbor. "In loving memory of our neighbor, Captain Jennifer Jean Harris, USMC," the plaque states. "We honor her service to our country . . . Semper Fi."
Kathy McCabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.