Like many military officers, Army Materiel Command’s Maj. Mike Harrell has suffered the loss of a Soldier. What he never expected was a relationship with a Gold Star father that has spanned distance and time.
It was Jan. 29, 2011, when Spc. Shawn Muhr was killed after an improvised explosive device detonated under the Heavy Equipment Truck he was driving through Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Spc. Joshua Campbell was also killed in the attack.
Harrell, Muhr’s company commander at the time, was traveling in the same convoy two vehicles ahead of Muhr’s truck.
“I felt a huge percussive blast,” Harrell recalled. “It stunned me physically. I was seeing stars.”
The blast – which occurred around 2 p.m. – was just the beginning. The convoy came under enemy fire and Army Special Operations and Marine expeditionary forces responded with support. The convoy could not continue its mission until the following morning, finally completing it eight days later.
The unit would collectively mourn their losses more than a week later in a memorial service at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. At nearly the same time, funeral services were underway in Coon Rapids, Iowa, as the small town buried the 26-year-old they affectionately called “Ox.”
“The memorial service was for the Soldiers,” Harrell noted. “The funeral was for the family.”
Before the brigade completed its deployment, a total of seven of its Soldiers would make the ultimate sacrifice. Harrell reached out to the families of each of his lost Soldiers, making the toughest calls of his career.
Those calls were met with strong emotion. And while Harrell keeps the memories of those Soldiers close to his heart, and wears their names on a black bracelet around his wrist, he understands that all who suffered combat losses move on in their own way.
Harrell could not have predicted that one Soldier’s dad would connect with him in a way he never expected.
When the unit returned to Fort Bragg, Harrell had the opportunity to meet Muhr’s father, David, who had traveled to North Carolina to accept a posthumous award bestowed on his son by the state’s United Service Organization. Together they walked through the 82nd Sustainment Brigade’s hall of heroes, where Muhr’s photo hangs among the organization’s fallen Soldiers.
Harrell took the opportunity to show David around the installation, giving him an opportunity to walk the grounds where his son conducted pre-deployment training. He showed him a Heavy Equipment Truck, like the one Shawn was driving when he met his fate.
From there, a lasting friendship developed. Harrell traveled to Coon Rapids on several occasions to take part in a memorial service at Muhr’s high school, to celebrate the naming of a bridge in Muhr’s honor and to participate in Veterans Day services.
David, a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart, has long honored the military and supported its former service members. For more than a decade, he has transported local veterans to the state’s capital city so they can visit the VA Hospital there. He has extended his hospitality to other military officers in Shawn’s chain of command and to Soldiers who served with his son.
When Harrell was stationed in South Korea, the two continued to correspond.
“At least once a month, I’d email him and let him know what’s going on here,” David said of Harrell. “To tell the truth, he is about the same age as my kids.”
Harrell’s face has become so familiar in Coon Rapids that residents have asked if he has family there.
“No,” Harrell said he always replies. “But maybe Dave will adopt me.”
So it’s no surprise that when David invited Harrell back to Coon Rapids recently, that he returned.
This time, the small town hosted a big dedication with historic precedence.
A monument erected in Afghanistan to memorialize the seven Soldiers who died found its way to Iowa. David tracked the memorial, which was shipped to the states when the U.S. ended military operations in the area where it once stood. The monument went from Fort Gordon, Georgia, to Fort Hood, Texas, and with some doing, David urged the Army to let it stand on permanent location in a park dedicated to veterans on Coon Rapids’ Main Street.
Coon Rapids residents filled a set of bleachers and others watched from their four wheelers as Harrell joined Iowa National Guard’s top officer and local elected officials in a July 21 ceremony rededicating the memorial.
Harrell recalled the day Taliban fighters attacked the convoy killing Muhr and his fellow Soldier.
“They gave their lives standing on the frontier of freedom to defend this great nation,” he recalled.
While the monument reminded him of one of his toughest days, Harrell told the Coon Rapids community that this day was a stark contrast.
“I could not have been prouder to serve with those who gave their lives for this country,” Harrell said. “This is one of the greatest days of my 15-year military career to dedicate this monument and share a small part in this phenomenal event, where a memorial that once stood in Afghanistan now stands on sovereign U.S. soil in the company of such great heroes and proud veterans.”
He also publicly recognized the relationship that has developed with Muhr’s father and the entire town, a friendship forged from tragedy, but destined to last a lifetime.
“Dave has become like a father to me, and like a grandfather to our children. I’m so happy to be a part of this community and that he has been able to have this support of this community since Jan. 29, 2011,” Harrell said.