Tony Harris was a rudderless young man adrift in the gulf that is young adulthood. His mother will tell you he was going nowhere, fast in Pennfield Ridge, N.B. A Roman philosopher, Seneca the younger, once said, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”
“I had no direction,” says Tony Jr. “I think I always knew that I was going to join the military. But when it came time I needed a push from my Dad.”
Tony Sr., a former air force man, describes the push as more of an ultimatum. “He had no option, not with me he didn’t.”
A private at the time, stationed at Forward Operating Base Wilson, in Panjwai District. A desolate Afghan wilderness surrounded by a vast emptiness, widely considered the spiritual home of the Taliban and one of the most dangerous regions of Afghanistan for Nato Forces. A Canadian outpost that gets shot up every day and they can’t even go 100 metres outside the wire without getting ambushed and torn apart by IEDs, which are everywhere: in the trees, in the walls, in the fields; all hidden and made of wood and plastic rendering them essentially undetectable.
Assigned to a motorized support unit, his role, each day, was refueling the vehicles. This fateful day, his daily task complete, he retired to the mess tent for a dish of noodles.
Hearing an explosion and screams he started running. Not away but toward the blast.
“If you think about it, in a situation like that, it is kind of stupid running toward an explosion. Or you would think it was, but something just clicked in my mind. I wasn’t thinking.” said Cpl. Harris when interviewed. Not wearing a helmet or a flak jacket, Taliban bombs falling all around, he ran to an empty shipping container doubling as accommodation that had been blasted to bits.
There was blood everywhere; the air was filled with smoke and screaming. Six men were wounded. A seventh was dead. In war movies, time slows down. For Private Harris, time became a blur. He was acting, reacting, yanking an American from the burning, twisted metal wreck, tying off his severed femoral artery and lugging him across a 200-metre stretch of open ground before going back to grab another one.
“We were moving pretty quickly,” Cpl. Harris says, laughing. “I definitely didn’t want to be out there. Nobody did. It is strange. I didn’t really remember a thing about what happened until I was sitting in an armoured vehicle afterwards and having a cigarette.
I was shaking all over. I had blood on my boots and blood on my pants. One of my buddies brought me a bag of Doritos and then I was all good but I couldn’t talk about it.”
He was honoured for his actions of Nov. 23, 2009 when he had been stationed at Forward Operating Base Wilson, in Panjwai District. A dusty Afghan nowhere surrounded by a vast emptiness crawling with bad guys. Memories of heat, dust, lack of sleep, enemy, ambushes, firefights and casualties.
Save for the Victoria Cross and the Star of Valour, the Medal of Military Valour is the highest honour a Canadian soldier can receive. A reluctant hero, Cpl. Tony Harris just joined an exclusive club with only about 75 members, total, since it was created.
Corporal Harris stood before Governor General David Johnston, who presented him with the Medal of Military Valour at a ceremony in Ottawa.
Tony is a different man than the one that left Pennfield Ridge. He is 28, and an Afghanistan veteran. In a quiet moment at home in Edmonton, in between stringing up Christmas lights with his partner, Kate Cooke, and packing for that special trip to Ottawa, he insists any soldier he served with would have done the same thing he did.
Try calling him a hero, and he will try changing the subject.
“I was just doing my job.”
Tony Sr., and his Mom, Sari, will be at the ceremony. They are incredibly proud.
“He could have been killed,” Ms. Harris says. “As a Momma, I am just glad I didn’t know what he was doing over there.”
Cpl. Harris says he would go back to Afghanistan in a heartbeat. No push required. He is a kid that was going nowhere, a kid that turned out to be a hero.
“I didn’t expect to get anything for what I did,” Cpl. Harris says. “I don’t need any accolades. It is a great honour and if you want to give me a medal, that is great.
But if nothing had ever come of it, I would know in my heart that I did what I did. And that’s what helps me sleep at night.” The war took the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers and wounded more than 1,800 others. Seven Canadian civilians were also killed: a diplomat, four aid workers, a government contractor and a journalist.