Guard unit stops in Demopolis en route to Mississippi, Iraq

Published 10:41 pm Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Richard Harris grew up in Demopolis.

In some ways, it will always be home for him.

He left in 1993 to attend Faulkner University in Montgomery, and he now serves as a contractor at Red Stone Arsenal.

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He owns a Bruster’s Real Ice Cream franchise on the side, and is a husband to his wife, Valerie, and a father to his children, Ellie (6) and Ryan (2).

And then, there is that whole thing about being in the National Guard.

It is his role as Major Richard Harris that has him on a charter bus with 44 other guardsmen bound for Camp Shelby, Miss., where he will spend three weeks before deploying to Baghdad, Iraq.

At Camp Shelby, the Opelika-based 111th Ordnance Group (EOD) will finalize its training requirements as it prepares for its tour of duty in Iraq.

“EOD stands for explosive ordnance disposal,” Col. Jose Atencio of Florence explains from a corner table at Smokin’ Jack’s in Demopolis, where the unit stopped for lunch before resuming its trek.

“We have trained to take over Task Force Troy. We are the counter (Improvised Explosive Device) fight. We are trained to command and control about 800 civilian and military personnel. We’re going to provide the core element for Task Force Troy headquarters.”

Of the 53 men and women in the 111th, 49 are set to make the trip to Baghdad. One of those 49 is, of course, Harris – who called ahead and got his father, John, to set up the lunch date with Smokin’ Jack’s.

“He called (Tuesday) afternoon about 4 p.m. and said ‘Daddy, can you do this?’” John said with a chuckle.

Harris is headed to Iraq for his second tour of duty; a fact that is not uncommon among this unit, which has already seen more than half of its members spend at least one tour in the Middle East. But this trip is a little unlike the first for Harris.

When he was deployed in November 2004, his son, Ryan, was not yet in the picture.

“It’s a little different because we have another child in the house,” Richard said.

“It might be hard at times for my wife, but we’ll get through it because of the family support team we have in Huntsville.”

The trip also is particularly difficult in some ways for John. It is not so much that his son is heading into the Middle Eastern theater.

While John acknowledges that there is some degree of apprehension regarding that fact, he understands Richard’s duties as he spent 26 years in the National Guard himself.

“The world is still going to turn, whether I get to see him or not. I’ll miss him, but I know what he’s doing,” said John, who also served in 111th. “I’ve done the same thing. I did it in Vietnam, and he’s doing it on the other side of the ocean.”

For John, the difficulty of this occasion is tied to something else.

“This time it brings back some bad memories,” John explained. “Last time (Richard deployed), Carol had just found out she had cancer and started her chemo.”

Carol — John’s wife and Richard’s mother – lost her battle to cancer early on a Sunday morning, July 29, 2007.

But John and Richard choose not to dwell too much on the difficulty of those memories. Instead, they choose to spend a few minutes together at lunch, exchange some laughs and enjoy the last time they will see one another for several months.

As the time for their departure nears, the guardsmen begin to filter toward the door a little at a time.

And as they do, they find a pair of men who have discretely chosen to pick up the bill on the entire unit’s lunch, something they considered to be the least they could do given the sacrifice the men and the women of the 111th have chosen to make.

Moments later, the 111th begins filing onto the bus and father and son exchange one more salutation before turning their attention to the road that lies ahead, wherever it may lead.