Last Known Activity|
Former area man killed in Iraq
Special Forces Staff Sergeant Gary Harper Jr. grew up in Virden
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
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."