When Justin Harris was a little boy, his dreams of wanting to save the planet as a marine biologist were big. He grew up watching movies like “Rambo” and action films starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, and was a typical, restless little boy who enjoyed playing “war” and “being an army guy.” But joining the military was the last thing on his mind.
Harris grew up in Leetonia, a small town in northeastern Ohio, population 2,500. His parents raised him, his two brothers and one sister to work hard, to have good morals and to be respectful. His dad worked from early morning until late at night pouring concrete, while his mom worked 12-hour retail shifts.
Looking back, Harris said, “My dad would usually be too tired to take off his boots, so we’d take turns taking them off for him. My mom would come home completely wiped out, and could barely stand up for an hour after dinner. That’s what they did for us; so we could have clothes and food on the table.”
When Harris was four years old his parents divorced, turning each of them into single income families. While both of his parents worked hard to provide as much as they could for their children, there wasn’t enough money to set aside for college funds. The opportunity for Harris to afford a college education came when a United States Marine Corps Recruiter contacted him in September 2001, just as he began his senior year in high school.
The recruiter asked Harris what his plans were after high school, and he told the recruiter he wanted to be a cook. Harris was told he could pursue a culinary career while in the Marines, and could qualify for a $50,000 college fund.
“Although there wasn’t a war going on in Iraq when I joined, the Sept. 11 attacks had already happened and by mid-October, [troops] were already in Afghanistan. I thought by the time I got through boot camp and all of the training that the war would be over by the time I hit the fleet marine force,” Harris said about what was going through his mind when he decided to enlist. “I felt invincible. Those places didn’t even seem real to me. The thought of death or injury never crossed my mind. I guess I was just like every other young kid joining the marines. I didn’t think anything would ever happen to me, and that we would be in and out of Afghanistan in a year or two.”
He knew that breaking the news that he was going to enlist in the Marines to his parents was not going to be an easy task. His dad soon figured out what was going on when his son was taking more phone calls from the recruiter.
“My dad wanted to make sure I wasn’t being lied to. He said to make sure I see it in writing before I believe it,” he said.
But his mother wanted nothing to do with it. “All my mom said was ‘NO, NO, NO,” Harris said.
Although his mom, Angie Consolo-Bonafati, was against the idea of her youngest child joining the military, Harris’ interest in joining encouraged her to learn more about conflicts overseas.
“I started paying more attention to the world. The more I read and saw the more horrified I became,” she said. “I wasn’t going to send my child into that mess!” But Harris, on the other hand, was very persistent. “This was strictly out of pride for his country and to secure his future with a good education. How in the world could I deny him that?” Consolo-Bonafati said.
Harris didn’t turn 18 until August of the next year, so each of his parents had to sign a waiver giving his and her permission for him to enlist. His mom said she would sign the papers, but began to have second thoughts and briefly avoided his phone calls. But soon enough Harris and his recruiter showed up at her work to get the papers signed by her.
“I didn’t know how to react. Signing my name on that one piece of paper changed my entire life. It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “Then within two minutes it was done. My son, my baby, was now a Marine.”
Harris’ friends also opposed his decision to join the Marines. They thought he should have joined the Army or Air Force instead. They didn’t think he would or could go through with it, which gave Harris even more motivation to join. He took his oath of enlistment on October 31, 2001.
After graduation in June 2002, Harris got to spend a month and a half with family and friends until he went to boot camp on July 27 at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot at Parris Island, SC. It was here that he spent 13 weeks training mentally, physically and morally.
“They break you down every second of everyday. Everything gets to you: the bugs, the heat, humidity and the constant screaming,” Harris said. “You don’t know what’s up or down, right or wrong; you’re just completely out of it for 13 weeks straight. I realized I had missed my 18th birthday a few days after it passed.”
On October 25, 2002, Harris finished boot camp and went to Marine Combat Training at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. It was there he learned survival techniques, as well as how to use military equipment such as hand grenades, multiple machine guns and fully automatic grenade launchers.
Three weeks later he was transferred to Fort Lee, Va., where he began military cook school. As a military cook he was responsible for providing three hot meals for the Marines no matter what the circumstances.
After two months in cook school, Harris joined the Fleet Marine Force and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines infantry battalion. He was transferred to Camp Pendleton in Southern California, the major West Coast base of the United States Marine Cops. Within weeks, he joined the rest of his battalion in Okinawa, Japan for Jungle Warfare Training. After three months in Japan, he went back to Pendleton for Desert Training to prepare for deployment to Iraq.
Harris crossed over to Iraq on March 3, 2004. His initial expectation was that he and the other cooks would be continuing their culinary duties, but he quickly learned that the USMC had hired contract cooks from India, so they were going to be utility men instead of cooks.
“The whole not cooking in Iraq thing was a catch 22. We really didn’t want to be cooking in the 130 degree weather, and none of us were particularly happy that some day when we told our ‘war stories,’ they would be centered around a kitchen,” Harris recalled. “So when we found out that we weren’t cooking, there was an immediate sense of relief and pride that we were going to do what everyone else came to do, and that was to fight a war.”
But even though they weren’t cooking, they still maintained makeshift chow halls in all of the combat outposts, and were responsible for keeping sanitary cleaning environments to prevent people from falling ill.
Harris and the rest of his battalion got to go home for 30 days after being in Iraq for eight months to spend time with family and friends.
After his 30-day leave, Harris went back to Japan for eight months. When he was finished there, he went back with only eight months left in the military. He took this time to think about his plans for what he would do after he got out, and remembering the inspiration he got from a history teacher in high school, he decided he wanted to go to school to become a history teacher. He applied to local colleges in Ohio, however, Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, Cali. sparked his interest.
“I figured this was my chance to do something I wouldn’t normally do,” he said. “Joining the military was a stepping stone to something I wouldn’t have had a chance at any other way.”
Because of his military service, Harris’ education is paid for through G.I. Bill education benefits. He receives $1,900 per month to pay for tuition, books and other educational materials.
On October 31, 2009, Harris received his Honorable Discharge certificate. After eight years of service, he is now focusing on his future career as a teacher and plans to obtain his bachelor degree from California State University, Fullerton.
“I don’t think I’m any different because of the Marines,” he said. “I think it allowed me an opportunity to really become myself and to become more confident. I don’t regret my decision to join the Marine Corps for one second.”