FORT SILL, Oklahoma (March 25, 2021) -- Col. Richard Harrison became the 44th commandant of the Air Defense Artillery School, chief of ADA, and the deputy commanding officer of the Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill in 2020. With all those titles, in this time when the Army is more diversity conscious, there’s another that may be most significant.
Harrison became the first African American ADA commandant. Having made that breakthrough though, he hopes to see other African Americans follow him into the position.
“Not to take away anything from people of other races because I want our young Soldiers to know that everyone has an opportunity on a level playing field if they apply themselves,” he said.
An interesting side note is 44 has been a significant number in Harrison’s career. It began with his first duty assignment in 2nd Battalion, 44th ADA. But it’s also been a significant number with others as he joins a prominent list of notable African Americans headlined by Barack Obama, the 44th U.S. president. African American athletes who wore the number include Major League Baseball Hall of Famers Henry Aaron, Reggie Jackson, and Willie McCovey; and National Basketball Association Hall of Famer George Gervin.
While it may be a nice conversation starter, Harrison focuses more on leading and sharing with Soldiers coming up through the ranks. The humility he speaks with likely developed early in life.
Service from the start
Harrison said he grew up in a middle- to lower-middle-class family in Sunbury, North Carolina. His mother worked in a sewing factory and his father drove trucks that took him away from home except on weekends. It was there that their example taught him how to serve others. His mother drove older relatives to appointments or the grocery store as there wasn’t one in their town. Though his father was on the road a lot, on weekends he worked around the house and helped neighbors.
He said weekends offered time to go out and have fun, but with one weekly requirement.
“We grew up in church, going quite a bit,” Harrison said. “Really it was a sense of service. I was an usher and sang in the choir. I watched my family and my community take care of each other.”
Leaving behind his teenage years, he matured into adulthood even as the desire to continue to serve others made military service a good choice for a career.
Although he saw other service members who came home and went to church in their uniforms, Harrison noted they were all of the enlisted ranks.
“I wanted to show the younger generation that being from a small town didn’t prevent you from becoming an officer in the military,” he said.
As Harrison headed off to college, he did so as an ROTC cadet at Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina, where he also met his future wife.
“We both had goals and wanted to make something of ourselves,” he said.
While he planned to be an example for others to follow, Harrison discovered ADA as a career path thanks to another young Army officer who looked like him.
Lt. Marlon James, 3rd Battalion, 4th ADA, was at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when Harrison arrived for summer ROTC camp in 1993. James represented the ADA branch at Branch Day and answered cadets’ questions.
“Seeing Lt. Marlon James give the ADA Branch demonstration inspired me to join (the branch) and to continue on and graduate as a commissioned officer,” said Harrison.
During his acceptance speech as the new ADA School commandant, Harrison said pride, hustle, and desire (PHD) helped him to excel and to overcome career obstacles. Sometimes evaluations or duty positions didn’t line up with his expectations as Harrison said he was focused on becoming the best Army officer possible. One such obstacle occurred when 1st Lt. Harrison served as a battery executive officer.
“Not getting what I felt I deserved was tough for me. I took pride in everything I did in that job. I hustled, went after challenges, and wanted to make my job and battery the best in the battalion. I came in early and stayed late,” he said.
Despite this effort, his officer evaluation report didn’t recognize this because the senior rater was limited in the number of top blocks he could give an officer. Also, doing this opened things up for other young officers as Harrison was already up for promotion.
In another instance, Capt. Harrison served as the administrative officer for 1st Battalion, 62nd ADA, and was inline for command — a line battery he hoped. He said his reason for preferring a line battery was a perceived stigma that said headquarters and headquarters battery (HHB) commanders weren’t the Army’s strongest leaders.
Instead the battalion commander, who incidentally acquainted Harrison with PHD, said he was going to select him as the next HHB commander.
Reflecting on his complete surprise, Harrison said, “I’ve done everything you asked me to do, I’m your S-1 — you don’t pick your worst captain in the unit to be the S-1.”
The commander replied that he needed to ensure every unit in his battalion had the right commander at the right time, and that Harrison was the correct officer for the HHB job.
As he began his command, he quickly learned the truth that made that stigma meaningless.
“Headquarters battery was the toughest battery in the entire command. Leading your peers is hard. You can lead your subordinates because rank gives you the authority to give them orders, and they will do them.
“But in the headquarters battery, one leads peers and battalion leadership, who are part of that battery,” he said.
This includes all requirements such as range qualifications and even periodic urinalyses, so it was Harrison’s job to tell command leadership what they had to do to satisfy those requirements.
“That was a demanding command, and PHD really got me through it,” he said. “I used that approach because no matter what, I was going to make the most of that command opportunity.”
After that, Harrison got his line battery, in what became a recurring theme throughout his career of not following the usual path from one position to the next.
Yes sir, SECDEF
Harrison was then selected for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense and Army Staff Internship Program.
Ordinarily young captains went to Georgetown University to complete a master’s degree, then moved on to their duties at the Pentagon. True to form, Harrison worked through the program in reverse.
Instead of developing his writing skills and learning to think strategically then applying it at the Pentagon, Harrison was put in command of a battery of over 120 people and worked for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. That was 2003 when the U.S. was heavily involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He laughed as he considered his humble upbringing compared to working directly for the senior civilian in the Department of Defense.
Through hard work and dedication Harrison was following a path to further successes as he drove on to be the best officer, but then his foresight encountered a hairpin turn. (Editor’s note: The conclusion of this article will be posted March 29 on Facebook.)