USASOC DCG reflects on long, memorable career


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice
By Sgt. 1st Class Jason B. Baker
U.S. Army Special Operations Command

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (USASOC News Service, March 6, 2008) – There are times in life when a seemingly inconsequential decision can lead to a dramatic shift in a life.

For a young high school student in the late 1960’s the decision came about with the initial goal of trying to find a way to avoid one more torturous hour of algebra.

“A guy came around when I was in high school and I was getting ready to go to algebra class,” said Maj. Gen. Gary L. Harrell, deputy commander, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, reminiscing about the first step in what would become a long career in the military. “The announcement came out that if you wanted to know about ROTC or an ROTC scholarship, go down to room such and such. I kind of knew what ROTC was but more importantly I knew it wasn’t algebra. I went and got the ROTC pitch. I had always been interested in a career in the military; didn’t really know how I was going to pay to go to college, so I went down and filled out the paperwork and the rest is history.”

After graduating from East Tennessee State University in 1973 and earning his commission the young lieutenant figured he would reach the rank of captain and then return to civilian life, but life had other plans and adventure in store. First, being his assignment to the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division.

“I’m not much about being airborne but I like hanging around folks who are,” said Harrell when thinking about what motivated him to become a part of the airborne community. “It was a step above. I don’t mean that to be derogatory to anyone else but there are lots of things in life that are what I call ‘gut checks’ and stepping out of a plane with a parachute on your back at a thousand feet is one of them. And I thought that folks who volunteered to do that would be pretty neat to hang around with and command. It turned out to be true.”

After a few years with the 82nd Airborne Division, Harrell went on to the Special Forces Qualification Course.
Once qualified, he was stationed in Panama with 3rd Bn., 7th Special Forces Group and it was here, working with the first CINC, in-extremis force, that his eyes were opened to the many opportunities that can be found in the Army and specifically the Special Operations community.

“I was already in Special Forces, and I had kind of already lined a job up, nothing definite but I was leaning that way,” remembers Harrell. “And they came up with something called the CINC in-extremis force and I wound up as team leader for the CINC, in-extremis force in SOUTHCOM. I came back here (Fort Bragg) for an intensive two or three week course to train up guys for those types of forces. I got interested in that and decided to stay a little longer and one thing led to another.”

The ‘things’ that led to one another would be more than thirty years of service at the tip of the spear in some of the nation’s most important and sensitive operations.

He would go onto serve in Grenada as the assistant G-3 with the 82nd during Urgent Fury. He led Soldiers as a troop commander with the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta during Operation Just Cause in Panama. He participated in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He was a squadron commander during the defeat of Pablo Escobar in Columbia and then operations in Somalia. At the start of the War on Terrorsim he served as the assistant division commander for the 10th Mountain Division during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. He later went on to command Special Operations Command-Central at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom assembling the largest special operations force since World War II. His final assignment was deputy commanding general for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

Though the Army sent him to various and remote locations throughout the world he knew because of his wife he was always assured there would be a home he could return to, said Harrell.

The ‘rock’ he could always count on

Harrell met his wife, Jennifer, in high school and the two have been together for 36 years. Coincidentally she happened to be the niece of the major who gave him the pitch for the ROTC scholarship program.

Harrell credits his wife with being the one who always established and made sure where ever the Army sent them it would be their home.

“She has been the rock our family has been built around,” said Harrell. “I would go places and find where we were going to live. Jennifer would come and make it a home and she made sure she made it a home for our kids. I’m more proud of being a father of our three kids than being a 2-star general and I give the credit to my wife. Not only did she take care of the kids, make sure they had an education, make sure they got to the football game or basketball game and she did all that while I was thousands of miles away.”

A Soldier knows time spent training is important to lay the foundation for essential skills; Harrell discovered quality time spent with your wife can help lay the foundation for a good relationship.

“One of the ways I got ready for selection was I would go home throw on a ruck sack, pick up my wife and we would go for long walks around the post,” recalled Harrell. “That is the way I toughened my feet up and did a lot of the things to get me in shape for selection. I also discovered it’s not bad for you marriage to go on long walks with your wife. So I got a ‘two-fer’ out of that one.”

Just like the long walks around Fort Devens, Mass. it would be his wife who would be by his side when difficulty came his way.

During his career he had suffered injuries that required serious medical attention. One of the most serious times was during operations in Somalia and he was seriously wounded by a mortar strike; his wife, as always, was there to meet him as he came in on the medevac, remembers Harrell.

Not only was she there for her husband, but also for the many other Soldiers and families in his units.

“When we lost folks, she was an integral part of going to the home to comfort the family,” said Harrell. “One thing a commander never likes doing is going and making a notification when someone is hurt or killed. She was very supportive of doing that with me when I was here and when I wasn’t as well. She was just there to offer a shoulder of support.”

He credits his wife with helping to establish a family support groups before it became the priority it is in today’s Army.

Current state of Special Ops and life after the Army

Harrell believes Special Operations is vital to winning the War on Terrorism and credits the work of Maj. Gen. James W. Parker, commanding general, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School with growing the force necessary to succeed.

“We have made huge strides,” said Harrell. “Jimmy Parker has done a tremendous job with the school house because he has just about doubled the output. He pays attention to the standards; makes sure the product that comes out still meets the standards. I admire the hard work he and all his folks have done to grow the force.”

Harrell says he is proud of his career and knows it is the right time to retire. He plans to take his many years of experience in Special and Joint Operations into the defense contracting industry.

“I look back and think it has been a heck of a ride,” said Harrell. “I’ve really had, in my opinion, a good career in terms of what I expected to do because I was planning on getting out as a captain. So the rest is kind of gravy. I have got to do a lot of interesting things and more importantly I have had the privilege of working with and commanding some really outstanding people.”


Maj. Gen. Gary L. Harrell, deputy commander, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, reminiscing about his long career in the military. (Photo by SFC Jason B. Baker, USASOC Public Affairs Office) Archive/2008/March/080306-04.html