Col. Richard Harrison, Air Defense Artillery School commandant and chief of ADA at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, talks about the parallel importance of career and family goals. Harrison is the school's first African American commandant.
Col. Richard Harrison, Air Defense Artillery School commandant and chief of ADA at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, talks about the parallel importance of career and family goals. Harrison is the school's first African American commandant. (Photo Credit: Marie Pihulic) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT SILL, Okla., March 29, 2021 -- This is the conclusion of the March 25 article introducing Col. Richard Harrison, the 44th commandant of the Air Defense Artillery School. As part one ended, Harrison, then a young captain, was working for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

“The things I learned there were just amazing. Not only shadowing senior leaders, but what I learned in that job from my long-term mentor — Lt. Gen. (Robert) Ferrell was about taking care of my family.”

During a mentoring session, Harrison recalled Ferrell, a colonel at the time, while looking over and approving of a timeline of Harrison’s progression as an Army officer, asked a question that caught him unprepared to respond.

“What are your wife’s goals?”

Harrison said he mentioned his wife, Tyra, taught school and searched for something more meaningful to say. Instead, the colonel swiftly and abruptly ordered Harrison out of his office for a while then eventually called him back in.

“(Colonel Ferrell) said, ‘The reason I got upset with you is you stood in front of church and all those people in front of God pledging your love and support of her, but you don’t even know what her goals are.’”

Ferrell directed Harrison to go home and meet with his wife and put her career timeline beside his own, and include the timelines for their children as they progress through school. Then he should chart his career progression with expected assignment locations that will help his family understand where they might be living and how best to prepare for those opportunities.

“2003 is when I had that epiphany that family became important and my wife’s career was just as important as mine,” said Harrison. “In fact, it should be more important.”

He added each assignment in his career progression would come with a paycheck, but his wife doesn’t have that certainty.

“She has to start over each and every time, and she has to put on a business suit and interview (for her next job),” he said.

“In that job, family became a focal point for me,” he said. “You wouldn’t think that -- going to the Pentagon and the pinnacle of the Department of Defense you’re there to learn about strategies and such.”

Ferrell assured Harrison that he would do fine in his career, but at retirement, it was important that he was with the same woman who he brought into the Army.

“If you can accomplish that then you’re successful,” Harrison recalled Ferrell telling him.

Strength in diversity

Reviewing his career, Harrison said he wants his example of reaching the higher officer ranks to show young officers and enlisted Soldiers, and especially those who look like him, that anything is possible if you apply yourself and work hard.

Harrison said Lt. Gen. James Rainey, Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, commanding general, gave him two priorities: to build leaders and to drive change.

Part of that change is carrying forward the significance of what led Harrison to make the Army a career. Years later when he was at the Army War College, he wrote a paper on social representation of how an individual sees him/herself achieving a particular objective or status, and how society sees that individual as well.

This viewpoint hasn’t always been positive. Harrison said he could be a rich man if he received a dollar for each time while wearing civilian clothes that he was mistaken for a command sergeant major. In contrast, he said senior white officers tell him that’s something they’ve never experienced.

“I want people to see, we’re here. I’m here and there’s others like us. I talk to lieutenants in the Basic Officer Leader classes and captains in the Captains Career Course who look like me and tell them there’s a future — I won’t be the last black commandant of ADA.”

He said his job is to prepare the way and help create a service where everyone is treated equally.

“Treat me by my merit, not by what you think or what you perceive that I am,” he said. “Let me show you that I’m a colonel and a leader.”

Rather than trying to decipher a person’s rank and job status, Harrison recommends defaulting to sir or ma’am in an opening exchange.

“Treat others with dignity and respect. Everyone has value and is a part of our team and should be treated as an equal teammate,” he said.

Looking to the future, Harrison said young Soldiers are facing aspects of the Army he didn’t have to do.

“They are going to have to grow up and lead an Army where we have a lot of new and different equipment coming in and different challenges,” he said.

One of those, the internet, wasn’t around when Harrison joined, neither were the recording devices nearly everyone carries. To young leaders, he advises them, “To lead as if you’re always being watched or being recorded,” he said. “When you lead now days you have to understand you’re on duty 24/7.

“I can control Soldiers during the day. They follow a (program of instruction) if they are in class or do what needs to be done as part of a unit. But when the flag goes down, I lose that touch with them, and that’s when leadership should kick in,” he said.

Second service

Once he submits his paperwork and retirement becomes official, Harrison spoke of a future that ties back to Ferrell’s advice.

“My wife and I have a long-term goal of opening and running our own school. She has been in education my entire career,” he said.

Now working as the Academic Programs and Supports director for Richmond Public Schools in Richmond, Virginia, the colonel put into military terms what his wife does.

“She’s in a brigade command now in terms of responsibility, subordinates, and the amount of money she manages,” said Harrison, who added his wife’s work goes toward the educational enrichment of 26,000 students.

“That’s a pretty big reach and breadth for a woman who has followed me around in the 26 years of my career,” he said.

Gone for many Army families are the days when one spouse managed the children and the home front.

“I want our young officers who are coming up to understand that our spouses, in many cases, didn’t dream of following us around – they have goals, too. Your job is to help your spouse achieve those,” he said.

Unlike the small, isolated town he grew up in, Harrison sees them living in or near a military community. He said the experience and contacts his wife has developed will definitely help them find the right place to retire and give back.

“With that and the leadership skills I’ve gained in the Army, I think we can go out and achieve that,” he said.

For now though, retirement can wait as Harrison wants to make sure he leaves a legacy for those who will follow his lead.

“I’m sharing with the next generation things I’ve done right and more importantly what I’ve done wrong,” he said. “I don’t want them to make the same mistakes.”

For Harrison, there’s much to be proud about the Army and where it’s going.

“We’ve come a long way, but we certainly still have a way to go,” he said. “We’ve made some good (improvements) and I want to be part of that positive change.”