Precious Cargo: 33rd FTS Airman delivers medal to Fort Carson soldier

  • Published
  • By David Poe
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
There are more than a dozen active duty service members who share the name Michael Harrison.  Some wear Navy blue; others wear Army green or Marine Corps drab; the 33rd Flying Training Squadron's Capt. Michael Harrison is an instructor pilot and wears Air Force blue.

On a leg of a student training flight, late in the evening June 29, Harrison and a student pilot touched their T-6A Texan II down at Colorado Springs Municipal Airport. This wasn't the first time Vance flyers had landed at the field at KCOS, yet their time on the ground would be anything but commonplace.

As the pair climbed out of the canopy, Harrison reached for a manila envelope he'd been carrying for five years. The following day he would finally get the chance to deliver it to its rightful owner - Capt. Michael Harrison.

In 2010, Harrison was stationed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, with the 351st Air Refueling Squadron and flew refueling missions in support of allied training and real-world missions.

Harrison's days as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector in support of action in Libya, were spent at high altitudes, conducting precise, repetitive aerial ballets. While flying is anything but a safe vocation, he said he felt a distinct separation between his open, high-altitude airways and the heat of allied operations on the ground. But one day, in a sense, it found him.

"I had received an email from someone that said I had received a NATO medal, and he wanted to know a mailing address for me," Harrison said. "I gave him my squadron's mailing address, and when it came I saw it was a NATO Meritorious Service Medal.
"A lot of us had flown missions into Pristina, Kosovo, and a couple of other areas in the Balkan regions," he said. "The medals I'd gotten in the past were just small packages - this seemed a bit more elaborate and an error."

After contacting personnel specialists, Harrison confirmed that the decoration was indeed his, so as military life rolled on, he put his uneasiness with the medal to the back of his mind.

That uneasiness came up again in 2014 as Harrison was reviewing his records, and he wanted to learn more about the NATO decoration.

"I learned that only a few people received the NATO MSM per year," he said, "and the secretary-general of NATO hand delivers it at a banquet. That was heavy on my mind, and I didn't know where to go with it."

After exhausting his official channels, he went where countless others go -- Google. When he typed "Captain Michael Harrison NATO Meritorious Service Medal" into the search engine, his suspicions came to fruition as he laid eyes upon Capt. Michael Harrison - U.S. Army.

He read a Washington Post story about Army Capt. Michael Harrison who has since been promoted to major and had served as an innovative company commander in a secluded area of Konar Province along the insurgent-busy Pakistan border. Embedded journalists traveled with Harrison and his company as they tried to rebuild relationships with Afghan nationals whose opinions of allied forces had frayed after approximately seven years of conflict.

"From what I've read, he's a leader," Capt. Harrison said of the major. "He's a humble guy, and I'm sure he's done a lot of [heroic] things that he wouldn't bring to anyone's attention."

Capt. Harrison said after reading the story, regardless of what any paperwork said, he was sure he was erroneously wearing the soldier's NATO decoration. He went back to Google and eventually tracked down Maj. Harrison to West Point, although the soldier had just left for training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Capt. Harrison laughed as he remembered the first voicemail he had left for Maj. Harrison.

"I didn't want to give away too much; I said, 'hey, this is Captain Michael Harrison in the Air Force,'" he said. "'Give me a call back when you can - I may have a medal that belongs to you.'

"When I finally got in touch with him, I asked him if he'd ever been awarded the NATO Meritorious Service Medal," he said, "and he said 'yeah, but I never got it.'"

Maj. Harrison recently told the Fort Carson Mountaineer that when he received the first contact from Capt. Harrison, he thought it was a prank.

"After some more conversations and a few emails, we determined the medal was probably meant for me," Maj. Harrison said. "I was beyond shocked."

Capt. Harrison said he could have mailed the medal to the soldier, but after all of the correspondence, and his admiration for Maj. Harrison from reading the Washington Post story, he wanted to hand-deliver it.

With Maj. Harrison moving to Fort Carson, Colorado, after training, Capt. Harrison went to his squadron commander, who thought it'd be a great idea to work a stop at Colorado Springs as part of a student training flight.

"We're teaching these students how to fly - not to become commercial civilian pilots - we're training them to be support aircraft," Capt. Harrison said. "Hopefully they understand that there's a bigger picture than just pilot training and flying airplanes. To meet a guy who is a leader on the ground in the Army, I hope the student realizes that big picture." 
On June 30, the two Michael Harrisons corrected what a five-year old clerical error had put into motion. On a quiet tarmac, the pair shook hands and spoke as old friends in the fraternity of military service. There was no music and no formal ceremony when Maj. Harrison finally received his NATO Meritorious Service Medal.

Years ago, two Michael Harrisons shared the same grid space on a map. The infantry officer traversed the rocky terrain below, while the aviator circled above.

With all of the differences between those two worlds, a thread remained that was bigger than an erroneously-delivered medal. It's a thread that continues to weave its way through of all of the Michael Harrisons and every troop who forms the military fabric.

"No matter if we're on the ground, flying, or out at sea," Capt. Harrison said, "I think most service members look at duty as 'I'm just doing my job. This is my portion and I'm going to do it to the best of my ability.' It takes a unique person to join the military, and 'excellence in all we do' is something we all aspire to."

And the thread continues to weave.

"To read that Washington Post article and just get a different view of what my rank in a different service is responsible for, I wanted him to receive the recognition he never got," Capt. Harrison said. "There's not much I can do, but at least getting that medal to its rightful owner, that's credit he should have received a while ago."