Gary R. Harper, Jr.
Staff Sergeant. United States Army
October 11, 2005
Media Contact: Army Public Affairs - (703) 692-2000 Public/Industry Contact: (703)428-0711
DoD Identifies Army Casualty
The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Staff Sergeant Gary R. Harper Jr., 29, of Virden, Illinois, died in Baghdad, Iraq on October 9, 2005, when his reconnaissance mission was attacked by enemy forces. Harper was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
For further information related to this release,
contact Army Public Affairs at (703) 692-2000.
Overwhelmed with grief, Linda Mae Morrison of Virden offered a brief but telling description of her son, Staff Sergeant Gary R. Harper Jr., whom she affectionately calls "my hero."
"He was a family man. He told his children he was going to go over to fight so they don't come over here to hurt us," Morrison said by phone Tuesday night after picking up her son's casket.
"That's who Gary was."
Harper, 29 and a graduate of Virden High School, was killed in Baghdad on Sunday when his reconnaissance mission was attacked by enemy forces, according to a military press release.
He was a medical sergeant assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), based in Fort Campbell, Ky. He deployed to Iraq in June.
Harper's wife, Danielle, and their daughter, Madison, and two sons, Tristen and Gabrian, live in Clarsksville, Tenn. Two brothers, a sister and his stepfather, Joe Morrison, also survive him.
As news of his death filtered through Virden, a town of 3,500 about 20 miles south of Springfield, residents remembered Harper as an all-around athlete who always gave 100 percent.
Born in Rockford, he attended elementary school there and in Amboy before moving to Virden, his mother said.
Virden Mayor Donnie Neighbors said he was Harper's Boy Scout leader.
"He was a good achiever. He always wanted to join the Army and be a Green Beret," Neighbors said. "Just a real super guy. Really outgoing and always had a smile. He had a lot of self-esteem. I'm sure going to miss him."
Neighbors said he has been trying to help Harper's family with funeral arrangements, and when he learned Tuesday of the young man's death, he contacted local American Legion members who lowered their flags and said a prayer for the fallen soldier.
"It's really tough, and it really hits home - only 29 years old. He was a good person, and he died doing what he wanted to do. He loved the service, and he loved his country," Neighbors said.
Virden's football coach, Brad Paisley, who was assistant coach during Harper's high school career, recalled Harper's positive attitude when he joined the team.
"He was the go-to guy and had a hard charge. He had a great sense of humor and was always happy. Whatever it took for the team, he'd do it," Paisley said.
Harper also participated in track, running the 3,200-meter relay.
"He'd take the rough job, the dirty job. He was a real great, hard-working kid," Paisley said, adding that he wasn't surprised when he learned Harper joined the armed forces.
Harper entered the Army as an artilleryman on May 20, 1993, during the summer of his junior year. He began training and then returned to high school to continue football and graduate in 1994.
His first assignment was with 1st Battalion, 14th Field Artillery, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He served there until January 2001, according to a biography from the Army's Special Operations Command Public Affairs Office.
Harper was later assigned to the 38th Field Artillery near Uijongbu, Korea, until January 2003.
He then immediately began the rigorous two-year training to become a Green Beret, the Army's most elite unit that's sent to some of the world's most dangerous conflicts.
In July 2003, the St. Petersburg Times in Florida featured Harper in an article about training for special operations medics at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.
He arrived at Fort Campbell in February of this year.
During his military career, Harper received numerous awards and medals. He's been posthumously recommended for the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart and Meritorious Service Medal.
Linda Mae Morrison said a memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Once she returns to Virden, Morrison said she wants to plan a second memorial service for the people of Virden and central Illinois.
Until then, those who knew Harper struggle to cope with the town's first Iraq fatality.
"It's very hard because I remember him as a
kid, a student and an athlete. As a football player, life and death wasn't
involved," Paisley said. "... It's one of those things you don't ever want
to talk about - a former player dying."
Sunday, December 11, 2005:
Staff Sergeant Gary R. Harper Jr. was a devoted soldier who died while living his dream of serving the United States, according to those who remembered him Saturday at a celebration of life service at the Virden High School gymnasium.
Harper, an Army Special Forces soldier who was killed in October near Baghdad while fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom, demonstrated the kind of commitment that defines great servicemen, said Major General Randal Thomas, adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard.
"Staff Sergeant Harper was that quiet professional," Thomas told the roughly 200 mourners, which included several area military groups.
Later, Thomas suggested Harper was the answer to the opening questions of "Character of the Happy Warrior," a poem by William Wordsworth.
"'Who is the happy warrior?'" Thomas quoted. "'Who is he (t)hat every man in arms should wish to be?'"
Harper, 29, spent part of his young life in Virden, playing football and running track for Virden High. He was born in Rockford and lived in Amboy before moving to Virden.
The husband and father of three was the first U.S. soldier with ties to Virden to die in the Iraq War. He was killed Oct. 9 when his reconnaissance mission was attacked by enemy forces, according to the military.
Aside from some photo collages and a slide presentation that chronicled Harper's life from infancy to his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, there was little mention of his private life. None of Harper's family or close friends spoke during the service.
Harper's widow, Danielle, and children live in Clarksville, Tennessee - near Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where Harper was based as a medical sergeant assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) - and were unable to attend the memorial.
Harper's parents, Linda and Joe Morrison, declined to grant interviews to the press.
Virden Mayor Donnie Neighbors, who was Harper's Boy Scout master, agreed that Harper seemed to fit an "all-American" profile.
"He was just like any other boy," Neighbors said after the service. "Always in a good mood, always laughing. Very energetic. I know the football coach said he was always the first one down the football field. Just a super kid."
Harper first joined the Army as an artilleryman in 1993, while still in high school. After graduation, he was stationed in Oklahoma and Korea before beginning training to become a Green Beret in January 2003.
As expected, Saturday's service was picketed by members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kan. About 10 members of the church, including a couple of young children, waved brightly colored signs and chanted slogans from their position across the street.
The organization - founded in 1955 by the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and operated primarily by members of the extended Phelps family - believes God hates America for embracing homosexuality, and that U.S. soldiers die in shame for defending the country's ideals.
"These people raised him for the Devil himself, and he split hell wide open when he died," picketer Steve Drain told reporters.
Drain said the protest in no way showed disrespect to Harper's family, because the church members only were "publishing the message."
The protesters largely were shielded from mourners, however, by Virden police officers and Illinois State Police troopers, along with about 100 flag-waving, leather-clad members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national motorcycle club that regularly attends such services to try to keep families from being distracted by such interruptions.
Despite plenty of back-and-forth yelling, no serious problems were caused by the protest, which wrapped up around the time the memorial began.
The protest was the source of some tension, though. Some attendees refused to speak with reporters who had spoken with or photographed the picketers. In fact, Neighbors abruptly walked away from an interview after a television cameraman said he had videotaped the Westboro group.
Inside the gymnasium, however, Neighbors' thoughts were devoted to Harper. He concluded his tearful remarks by presenting Harper's family with a blanket commemorating Harper's scouting days.
"I will miss him and never forget him," Neighbors
said. "He was my friend and my Scout."
Photo Courtesy of Holly, December 2005