Combat vet, wounded warrior embraces new challenge as West Point cadet
November 15, 2012
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Nov. 15, 2012) -- The memorial bracelet he wears on his left wrist has immense significance. Etched on the bracelet are the names of five men -- Senior Airman Brad Smith, Sgt. Joshua Lengstorf, Spc. Doc Bowman, Pfc. Matthew Wilds and Pvt. John Dion -- who made the ultimate sacrifice in service for our nation.
For almost three years, Class of 2016 Cadet Harrison Majors has worn the bracelet in remembrance of these men who lost their lives in Afghanistan, four during a mission that resulted in Majors receiving a Purple Heart and the other a good friend (Wilds) who died on a deployment prior to Majors' arrival in Afghanistan.
During Majors' eight months (November 2009-June 2010) deployed in Afghanistan, he survived three separate improvised explosive device, or IED, blasts from two separate incidents for which he earned two Purple Hearts, received four concussions, a broken nose, sustained hearing damage, minor physical scrapes and, the toughest of all to mend, a wounded heart.
Majors willingly shares his story of getting wounded twice in combat with fellow West Point cadets and others wanting to hear his story, but it's his brothers-in-arms and their stories that helps bring together the combat experience while also mending the pain he feels.
"Probably the most moving thing that I have to share with others about these guys, and not necessarily the story where they gave up their lives, is all the little stories I have with them," Majors said. "At appropriate times, especially here at the academy when more than 90 percent of my classmates are eagerly looking into learning about combat experience or the Army experience, I feel these guys are the perfect examples and their stories are perfect to share with others.
"A lot of combat veterans, in my opinion, become very closed up on the hard experiences they've been through," Majors added. "But, I'm trying to remain open, I'm trying to grow from it, be resilient and, mostly, if I could see cadets trying to follow these Soldiers to the same caliber that these guys were, we would have a hundred times better Army when these (cadets) graduate--the world is a better place with guys like these."
THE INCIDENTS AND LIVES LOST
While serving with 3rd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Carson, Colo., Majors faced two particular incidents on Jan. 3, 2010, and April 6, 2010, that changed lives and ended lives in a matter of minutes and seconds.
The April 6 incident may have caused more physical damage to Majors' body, which included a broken nose, when as a turret gunner for the lead truck of a convoy, his truck drove through the village of Kandalay in the Zhari District of Kandahar and his vehicle struck a large command wire IED that launched it through the air.
Luckily, the vehicle landed on its wheels and despite being knocked unconscious in the turret and sustaining physical injuries, once he regained consciousness moments later, he resumed his position as gunner. However, it was the Jan. 3 event months earlier in the village of Badvan, while as a key leader on patrol with his heavy machine gun and light machine gun teams, where his team faced the enemy, lost lives and caused emotional scars.
"We crossed a bridge, a choke point into the village, and just after I stepped off an IED, the IED went off and it hit primarily Private Dion and Sergeatn Lengstorf," Majors explained. "Sergeant Lengstorf's body was thrown overhead, above us into the village, while Private Dion was thrown just to the right of the bridge into the water, which was kind of a moat. "After getting off the ground, a mortar round came, my partner and I were between an IED and the mortar round and we were also starting to get contact (from the enemy).
"We pulled each other down to the left side of the bridge and Private Dion was on the right side of the bridge with the village ahead of us," Majors continued. "We were shooting from the water, just hanging over the bank up to our chest in water. I looked under the bridge and saw one KIA (killed in action0 and we didn't know where Sergeant Lengstorf was. Our platoon covered us, pulled us out and we sent a team of four into the village to find Sergeant Lengstorf's body. At this point, we had one KIA and three wounded in action. One of the wounded was pretty bad.
"At that time, Specialist Bowman, Senior Airman Smith, our RTO (radio-telephone operator) and our patrol leader, they ran into the village alone and we covered them from our position. They ran about 200 meters to recover the remains of Sergeant Lengstorf, brought him back and on the way back as they approached the casualty collection point, another IED was set off and the patrol was hit, including myself," he added. "In that blast, a lot of people were wounded, but Bowman and Smith were killed. We were up to four KIA at that point, one critical and about nine of us were wounded, but we were still fit to maneuver on out."
CONTINUING IN COMBAT AND BEING IN THE MOMENT
What can ever prepare you mentally for the death of friends, loved ones and the fact that you faced and dodged two bullets, earning two Purple Hearts because of it? Was a third time around the corner?
Continuing another couple months in an active combat zone made it a real possibility, but Majors said he was mentally tough to continue without the after-effects of his injuries and friends' deaths.
"It's pretty common for people to get scared. It's common for Soldiers at the end of their deployments to get more antsy and start arguing with each other because they're ready to go home -- (that was) by first-hand account on my deployment," Majors said. "You don't want to be killed a month or a week before you're supposed to go home.
"For me, after those events, and the closer we got toward the end, I was given more opportunities to serve for my buddies, the other gunners, so if we had a convoy to go on and someone was scheduled to be that gunner and while it may have been foolish, although I didn't care, I was like, 'hey, I'll be the lead gunner for you,'" he continued. "All I know is when I made those decisions, our platoon had to get (to where it needed to go) and either way we needed a gunner. We may or may not get hit by IEDs, but that is beyond my control. All I knew was that I was willing to take that hit for any one of those guys in my platoon -- they deserved it.
"I hoped to be a good example of selfless service and sacrifice, and that is what a lead gunner requires of you but, at the same time, I was confident in my ability to fight. I was pretty confident I could call something up or I could respond to a firefight or threat, especially with a 240 (SAW gun) or .50-cal in my hands," Majors concluded. "Personally speaking, I could be scared or afraid, but in the end if I knew it was going to happen, I would be willing to take that bullet for my buddies. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It's kind of scary in the moment, but sometimes while you are in the moment you don't think about that. You just get your (work) done."
THE DEFINITION OF PURPOSE
For Majors, it is still a tough subject to discuss, especially when he stepped off an IED, albeit a command wire IED, that went off a second later and hit Dion and Lengstorf.
"There is no explanation as to why those kinds of things happen," he said. "There is no explanation to why one human wants to kill another human. Why would they go so far to hurt someone without a just cause, without protecting someone or something, basically just to go out there and hurt other people."
On the flip side of the disdain he has for what the enemy did, is the fact that Majors found a purpose in his life, through a spiritual awakening of sorts during those tough times on deployment, and believes he is here for a reason.
"I definitely feel lucky and grateful, and it gives me a sense of purpose," Majors said. "For me, if God did not want me here and my time on Earth was done, and that's pretty cliché, but I wouldn't be here. But, I am here, so I have things to do and I still have a purpose and a life to live.
"Until God calls me home, I have no business thinking I shouldn't be here or thinking 'why me or why not me?' It's tough when it comes to other people's lives. Had I lost my life in any of the events I faced, how grateful would I think it would be to be alive and would I want my buddies who survived to be miserable or questioning their liveliness," he added. "Personally, I would want my platoon mates to have good lives and I'm pretty sure that's what these guys would want, I mean they were all pretty solid guys.
"We lost (Senior Airman) Brad Smith, who was an airman attachment, and he was one of the most, if not the most, genuine guys I've ever met in my life. It's hard to lose a guy with such quality," Majors continued. "I definitely think he wouldn't have any selfish inhibition for someone to question whether or not they should be here. He would agree--be thankful for what you have and honor yourself and those who made that sacrifice by doing the best you can every day."
ON THE PURPLE HEARTS AND MOVING FORWARD
It's not easy to keep a sense of humor after you sustain the injuries Majors suffered. However, in the first few minutes of our interview, despite the enormity of what had happened, he kept a good sense about himself receiving those Purple Hearts and that sometimes involves one of the basic human emotions -- joy -- through laughter.
"Let me put it this way, I've always heard it said (that the Purple Heart) is the enemy marksmanship badge or the 'I didn't duck quick enough' award, so it's kind of the humorous viewpoint on it," Majors said. "At the same time, it does represent taking that hit from the enemy, so I see sacrifice in it. I think about the guys who earned that award for being killed, which is pretty serious and that's when the humor goes out the window and they can't represent it in person.
"For guys like me, fellow Soldiers, officers and enlisted, those of us who remain alive to wear it and represent our buddies, our brothers and sisters who died in combat, I try to keep it as a reminder of the sacrifice of others who can't represent that sacrifice," he added.
As Majors moves further away from the deployment, he can now reflect on that experience and how it can help him going forward as an officer one day.
The former sergeant spoke about finding his spiritual direction and that his life is a way to serve God ultimately, which includes being involved in a Christian group called the Navigators. He also gathered all the information from the leaders he served under and took the bad and the good from a tough deployment.
"My platoon leader (1st Lt. Christopher Preece, now a captain) set a good example and I felt like I learned what it meant to have tact with your Soldiers, how to treat them right and how to fight for them and show them you care," Majors said. "I wanted to follow him, he was prior (enlisted) and an infantryman like me, and that's what kind of gave me the desire to go forward into officership."
THE DRIVE TO BE ACCOMPLISHED AND GOING TO WEST POINT
At the beginning of his nearly three-and-a-half years as an enlisted Soldier, not including the time spent at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School, while Majors was at Fort Benning, Ga., for his initial training to be an infantryman, he sat in a briefing about West Point from Maj. Brian Easley, who was the academy's Soldiers admissions representative at the time.
Easley briefed every trainee with a score of 110 or higher in the General Technical category of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and Majors felt that with his goal to serve and eventually earn a way to pay for college, West Point was the best option for him. His deployment inspired him to continue serving, so he re-enlisted for six years in December 2010.
"I thought even if I don't get into West Point or ROTC or if the Army doesn't cut me loose to get a commission, then I'll still serve so I re-enlisted for six years," Majors, who also was promoted to sergeant before going to USMAPS, said. "The career kept looking promising for me and the re-enlistment encouraged my chain of command to promote me to an E-5 while they knew I was applying to West Point. They figured, either way, they were going to have an E-5 out of me for a little bit of time or a long time (as an officer), so they knew I was committed to service."
Majors, who eventually was offered admission to USMAPS in March 2011, was also in the process of going to Ranger School before going to USMAPS and had been doing pre-Ranger training with his unit for several months.
There is an extreme drive in Majors that everything he is doing is with the purpose of not wasting his life.
"After all those experiences, I don't want to be foolish with my life and waste it. I'm still learning and growing," Majors said. "I'm still 22 years old regardless of how much I've been through in 22 years. I've made mistakes in my life, but I do aspire to move forward. "It's not about me having a good career, making good money and building my life up--those are nice things to happen," he added. "But I think more than anything I just want to help other people around me--I want to serve."
INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE AND THOSE CLOSEST TO HIM
Majors credits his Christian group, the Navigators, for keeping him, "(more) strongly motivated than he was before," and Class of 2007 graduate Michael Noel, who Majors met when he first arrived at Fort Carson, Colo., in helping steer him in the right direction toward West Point. Once at USMAPS and West Point, he has also found a "family" with the West Point Lacrosse Team.
Although, he had never played before USMAPS, he played as a defensive midfielder and enjoyed defeating Navy last season. However, he knew he wasn't good enough to play for the West Point squad, but has remained involved as a team manager.
"There's something really good about being a part of that team," Majors said. "I sit with the lacrosse players as much as I can at breakfast, lunch and dinner. They're always swinging by the rooms to see how I'm doing in school and I'm going by their rooms and seeing how they're doing. Even if you are managing, you still feel a part of a family."
Majors is also the Class of 2016 vice president and has been focused on meetings involving Plebe-Parent Weekend and the class crest.
"It's been a lot of collaboration and a lot of cooperation, more than anything," he said. "More than any executive decisions by myself, the president or the secretary, we're all coming together to say, 'hey, what's good for this class,' and we've really come together on everything our class government is tasked to do."
Even with all that he's involved with, he still has time for his best friend here, Zachary Matson. Matson, like Majors, has a parallel story. They both joined the Army in 2007, both went infantry, both deployed to Afghanistan and both went to USMAPS at the same time, and not until about halfway through last year, they found out they were both in the same briefing conducted by Easley at Fort Benning.
"We got to talking about how we both came to West Point, and found out he was in the same briefing, in the same classroom, at the same time and same officer. It's unbelievable he was at Fort Benning the same time I was," Majors said.
The best thing about their relationship is they can relate so well together. It is motivating to know someone has been in your shoes every step of the way and while West Point can bring out the best and worst in the cadets, it's always good to have a confidant to confide in.
"It's important to have someone to talk to and I share with him my feelings and I talk to him about anything--it's an open door for me," Majors said. "If I'm having trouble with something, I don't have to hold that back. When the metal meets the meat and you're being challenged, it's good having a buddy there who picks you up and encourages you to keep on going."
INFANTRY, LEADERSHIP AND THE FINAL WORD
The infantry and leadership are two things he talks about with great pride. Majors would like to become an infantry officer as he was involved with them as an enlisted Soldier.
"I feel I can be motivating to infantry Soldiers and I can relate to them," he said. "I hope to have a great platoon leader experience with resources I have available from my prior experience to draw from."
And, leadership is something that Majors truly believes in as he's earned the Distinguished Leadership Award at both the Warrior Leader Course and at USMAPS.
"Leadership means being the person that you and others would be willing to follow. I think true leadership doesn't demand authority, authority is a good tool and that's why there's rank but, I think genuine leaders and real leadership will draw that desire to follow even with the greatest risks and sacrifices," Majors said. "You see people standing forward in following and making sacrifices because they really believe in their leaders, and I had a good platoon leader (Preece). We trusted him, this guy knows what he's doing, he's confident, he's competent and he's got the best intentions for us because he cares for us.
"If you calculate all those things, if you put yourself in a position where you can see that in yourself and you can show your Soldiers that, through your actions more than your words, then you reached a great level of leadership," he concluded. "But it's not a destination, it's a journey. It's ongoing and never stops; it looks different with every assignment or every job you're given. It's about opportunity and boils down to the key concepts, characteristics and values that make a good leader."
Lt. Col. Stephen Ruth, USMAPS commandant and dean, is one person who can attest to the leadership that Majors will provide as a future Army officer.
Ruth was Majors' sponsor for the 4th Class Sponsorship Program and when Majors was discussing his time in Afghanistan, he brought up a couple of guys who Ruth mentored years earlier. Noel and Edward Major, Class of 2007, were both sponsored by Ruth when he was an instructor with the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership in 2003-04. Both guys, Ruth said, helped Majors in his development at his unit.
"He was taken aback by the fact that the kids I mentored 10 years ago, helped him in his development in the Army," Ruth said.
Ruth also talked about the greatest qualities Majors has -- good peer leadership and humility. When Majors received his second Purple Heart at a ceremony Oct. 25 at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, Ruth remarked about how so many people came to support him because of his great attitude.
"The greatest attribute he has is a sense of humility," Ruth said.
Ruth feels that sense of humility enhances his abilities to offer much because those he's leading will see him as a genuine leader.