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Marine officer wins Silver Star for gallantry in combat in Iraq

Story by Beth Zimmerman Marine Corps Times staff writer  

RICHMOND, Va. – For more than a year, leathernecks with Recruiting Station Richmond were unaware they were working for a hero - until their commanding officer received the nation’s third-highest award for combat valor. 

Major John “J.D.” Harrill III was awarded the silver star at RS Richmond Dec. 17 for his actions in Iraq from February to September 2004. While serving as the operations officer of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, Harrill “calmly led the battalion command element and coordinated maneuver of the battalion’s combat units, while personally neutralizing enemy automatic weapon and rocket-propelled grenade fire,” his citation read.

According to 2/4’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Paul Kennedy, Harrill’s actions on almost any given day of his seven-month deployment would have rated the medal. One such day came less than two months after the battalion’s arrival.  

On the evening of March 31, 2004, as the command element traveled down the dark and deserted Main Supply Route, it received incoming small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Without hesitation, Harrill ordered his vehicle to pull over, the report said.  

Then, he led the dismounted element of four Marines into machine-gun fire toward the direction of the insurgents, engaging the enemy along with the element’s sergeant major.  

According to the report, “the two Marines proceeded, without a covering force, to pursue the fleeing enemy down several unlighted city blocks,” when the sergeant major shot and killed the RPG gunner, who was aiming another shot at the Marines.  

Five days later, Harrill directed the raid that netted three high-value targets. Within hours, three companies were engaged in at least eight separate locations across several miles. “We had platoons and squads pinned down everywhere,” Harrill said. So he and the forward command post “fought our way into the city to one of the companies that was heaviest in contact,” Harrill said.  

Once Harrill linked up with the company, he continued directing fire throughout the city. While command vehicles were setting up security, he and his exposed vehicle started taking machine- gun fire. Harrill “calmly and deliberately paused from his duties on the radio and suppressed the gunner with his own weapon,” the report said.  

Harrill directed his small group of support Marines to provide suppressive fire. His three radio vehicles and one gun truck continued fighting for nearly seven hours without additional security, while Harrill directed the actions of six companies, including an Army engineer company, in defeating the enemy.  

In yet another battle, on April 10, despite a bombardment of explosives, RPGs and smallarms fire, Harrill continued directing the maneuvering companies, “while never breaking positive control over the battle, and with a seemingly casual disregard toward the fighting raging around him,” the report said.  

Harrill’s father, retired Lt. Col. John “Dave” Harrill II, wasn’t surprised his son received the combat valor award. “I always said he had ice water in his veins.”

However, his son was much more humble. “I felt confident in the team I was with and the training that I had, and it all seemed oddly natural,” Harrill said.

“When everything was chaotic, it was the environment I’d been trained to operate in, with guys I could trust,” he continued.

The 35-year-old Huntsville, Ala., native adamantly pushed the credit for his medal to the Marines he led.

John D. Harrill III said the incident for which he was awarded occurred in April 2004 as Marines were fighting to prevent the fall of Ramadi, a city of about 450,000 people.

"We were ambushed by thousands of insurgents," he said. While coordinating his battalion's combat units, Harrill personally wiped out enemy machine-gun and rocket-propelled-grenade posts, the commendation noted.

His unit -- the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division -- suffered 14 dead and 40 to 60 Marines wounded in that fighting. Enemy losses were estimated between 500 and 600.

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