Friday, February 16, 2007

Jennifer Harris remembered

Flying her fellow Marines in and out of hell did not prevent Capt. Jennifer Jean Harris from making the time to send presents back to each member of her large and loving family.

They fill the Swampscott bedroom where Ray and Rosalie Harris’ only child once dreamed of attending Annapolis and becoming a Marine aviator.

Each gift is still wrapped and waiting to be opened.

“The family planned on having a delayed Christmas this week,” Harris’ uncle, Anthony Macone, explained yesterday. “We said we’ll wait ’till Jen gets home and then have ourselves a kind of all-in-one celebration - Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries . . . that way, Jen wouldn’t miss anything.”

Today, Jen Harris, 28, was supposed to touch down in California after completing her third combat tour as the lone female pilot of the Marines’ legendary Purple Foxes helicopter squadron.

Last Wednesday, while transporting blood between Baghdad and Fallujah, Harris, her co-pilot and a crew of five perished. An insurgent group with links to al-Qaeda has claimed credit for downing the CH-46 Sea Knight chopper, though there’s been no official U.S. confirmation.

For the family huddled in the sanctuary of a small living room yesterday, confirmation hardly seemed relevant. The pain has already burned its way beyond their eyes and deep into their hearts.

“I want to die today, right now,” said Gina Macone, 82, “if it will bring my granddaughter back.”

And yet, tears have been tempered by the greatest gift Jen Harris left her family - memories.

“In her squadron, Jen was known as ‘The Dove,’ ” her aunt, Linda Macone said with a radiant smile. “Despite all that was going on, Jen was quiet, peaceful and serene. In her e-mails and letters, she took great care to protect us from what she was seeing over there. She didn’t want Rosalie or her grandmother to worry. ”

Two months ago, Jen Harris sent home a new squadron patch that her family now sees as both poignant and hauntingly prophetic.

“It’s a casualty evacuation insignia that shows an angel holding up a helicopter,” Linda said. “The angel has blond hair, just like Jen. We don’t know for sure if Jen was the inspiration. But obviously we think she was.”

Not long after Jen Harris was born, her mother, Rosalie, a teacher, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Anthony and Linda Macone embraced the role of “extra parents.” Indeed, it was Anthony who drove his gifted niece first to West Point, where she was accepted, and then to Annapolis.

When the honor student they described as “our Barbie doll girl, angelic but strong” told the family that she would become a Marine because the Marines were “the best of the best,” her grandmother cringed. “I said to her, ‘Jen, the Marines are always the first to fight.’ She tells me, ‘That’s why I want to be a Marine.’ ”

And yet, she managed to tailor her compassion to her mission. Jen Harris chose to fly a support craft rather than an attack chopper. “She didn’t want to be alone up there,” her uncle said. “She wanted to assist, to take care of the wounded. And it didn’t matter if they were fellow Marines or wounded Iraqis. Jen was always looking to help people.”
When her time in hell was done, Harris was looking forward to teaching Marine NROTC officers at George Washington University. She was also one of three officers chosen for an elite U.S. Senate mentoring program.

Last week, when Harris’ aunt, Maureen Corton, heard reports of the latest helicopter crash, she instinctively whispered, “Oh, Jen, please, please get home.” An hour later Ray Harris was on the phone: “Maureen,” he cried, “Jen’s gone.”

Ray Harris remembered that last Wednesday had been a “good day.”

“Everyone was excited because Jen was coming home. Then, as I was about to fix supper for Rose, I caught sight of the three uniforms walking to the door. I just screamed, ‘Oh,!”’

Soon, he will repeat the tender ritual he shared with his daughter. “I loved picking her up at the airport when she’d come home,” Ray said. “I had this special pillow so she could rest her head. Picking her up was always so much better than taking her back.”

In a few days, Ray Harris will proudly drive to Logan Airport to meet “my lovely girl” when she arrives for the last time. “I told the funeral director that I want the hearse to come straight here. This is Jen’s home. This is where her mother and I and all her family and friends will be waiting to welcome her home.”

From the Reporter

Related Link:
Jennifer J. Harris killed in helicopter crash