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A Hero Among Us

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Capt. Jose Harris joined an honored group of U.S. servicemen and women when he was presented the Purple Heart for injuries he received while supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. The captain who was serving in Mosul, Iraq, as the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group, Detachment 1, Weather Flight commander, was riding in a convoy that came under fire. He received six wounds to the face and neck during the attack.

"I feel privileged to serve in the United States Air Force and to have had the opportunity to defend my country and our way of life," Capt. Harris said of the incident.

Brig. Gen. Thomas E. Stickford, Air Force Director of Weather, presented Capt. Harris with the Purple Heart in a ceremony at Offutt AFB, Neb., Oct. 29. A formation of more than 200 AFWA members stood to honor the presentation. Capt. Harris' wife, two daughters and stepfather were also in attendance.

"I am honored to present this award. This is a very prestigious award that represents a moment in combat that we don't wish upon anyone. It's an affirmation of what we do and a tribute to all the men and women serving," General Stickford said during the ceremony.

The General noted, that for Capt. Harris, this particular incident in the global war on terrorism was a matter of being in the right place at the wrong time.

Captain Harris' stepfather, Lt. Cmdr. (U.S. Navy retired) Chuck Mach, also understood that with this decoration comes sacrifice, because in order for someone to receive the Purple Heart the person had to have been killed or wounded in combat.

"It's never good to hear that your son has been injured. [Therefore,] I will not congratulate him on his decoration. I want him to know how proud I am of him. He serves his country honorably, and I am proud of his courage," said Lt. Cmdr. Mach.

Capt. Harris can still vividly recall May 29, and the events that led up to the attack on the vehicle he was riding in that day. He was traveling in a convoy with Army Chaplain Timothy Vakoc, who was driving one of the Humvees, and Spc. Nathan Copas, the chaplin's assistant. The pair were returning from presiding over a mass at Camp Patriot. The five vehicle convoy consisted of: a five-ton truck, two Humvees, and two gun trucks covering the front and rear.

Capt. Harris said he recalls hearing a ringing that sounded like a pager. He says there is then a small gap in time that he cannot remember, but how long of a time he can't be sure. He said when he once again became aware, he could neither see nor hear.

The weather officer says that as his vision and hearing returned, he saw that the vehicle had been damaged and the Chaplin was injured. It was then that he knew that the vehicle had been hit. He later learned that an improvised explosive device detonated from under a median and struck the vehicle. He goes on to say the Chaplain's assistant stopped the vehicle when the Chaplain did not respond. Once the vehicle stopped, Capt. Harris quickly assessed the wounded driver's condition and followed the directions of the combat life saver, Tech. Sgt. Jason Hodges, to administer first-aid.

While many locals watched, they maintained their distance from the wreckage and no one attempted to help. The team worked diligently to keep everything under control. Capt. Harris recounted that everyone remained calm and responded very well during the situation.

After the Chaplain was safely evacuated and the team was debriefed, it was only then that Capt. Harris noticed he had been injured. Although his Kevlar Helmet and shatterproof sunglasses provided protection, concrete and glass debris managed to lodge into several places on Capt. Harris' face and neck. His sunglasses also had concrete embedded in them.

"Three days after returning home I pulled a piece of, what I believe to be concrete, from my wound. My ears still ring from time to time, accompanied by some pain, and I suffered permanent hearing loss," Capt. Harris said.

Although Capt. Harris said he is thankful to receive the Purple Heart, his thoughts are still with his fellow comrades, particularly with the Chaplin, who is still in a critical but stable condition.

"I'm glad that when the bad guys tried to kill us and stop us from accomplishing our mission to protect America and help the Iraqi people, I was able to make a positive difference for my fellow soldiers and our mission," Capt. Harris said.