Being able to interview our local veterans, and share their stories has become such a wonderful part of my life. When learning about Harlee Harn’s years in the Air Force, and his life after getting out, I found out this American Hero had to wait nearly 38 years for his first Veteran’s benefits. “When I got out of the service the veterans administration didn’t want to see me because I could walk, talk, and I had all my limbs.” He joined the Disabled American Veterans in 2010, after working various jobs as a cable tv repairman, a fishing guide, doing some lawn and garden services, and running a plant nursery- some of which he did simultaneously.
When asked about his childhood, he said, “I grew up in Lee County mostly around Fort Myers and spent my summers in the Venice area at my grandmother’s home on lower Roberts Bay. They were fun filled days of my youth with plenty for me to do in Southwest Florida. It was laid-back and did not have the boom attitude of today. Everyone knew who you were so you behaved accordingly.”
He enlisted into the Air Force in November of 1968, during the Vietnam war. He was just 19 years, old and had returned from Memphis, TN from playing on a football scholarship. “The girlfriend I had at the time thought I would like the service better than knocking my head around on a football field so I started the enlistment process. I was living with my mom and she had recently remarried, and I needed to get out to make my own way,” Harn remembers.
“After taking the Air Force entrance exam my highest score was in electronics. There were not many radio repairmen around the county or Fort Myers back then, so I figured I could put in for years, learn the trade, and come back to either start a business or get a good job.”
“My first day in the service wasn’t like the flyer. I almost got into a fight with a new lieutenant over where to sit at a table. I was supposed to go to a table where there were other people waiting for the seats to be filled. No one told me. Just before it came to blows a Master Sergeant came over and took control of the situation. He basically saved me and the lieutenant. After my meal I was loaded on the plane and sent to San Antonio Texas Lackland Air Force Base for Basic Training.
“I was put in charge of the barracks as dorm chief and I just treated it like one big football family. We only had a few problems and they were taken care of quite easily. One day after the drill sergeant left, a young lieutenant came and wanted us to open the door for inspection. We have been warned not to open the door for anyone without a password. We changed the password everyday. The Lieutenant wasn’t happy. He started carrying on about everyone being court-martialed if we didn’t let him in. We never let him in and we don’t know who he was. When the drill sergeants came in the next day, we told them about it and we never heard anymore about it,” he recalled.
“Basic was tough on all of us especially through the holidays. Some guys lost her girlfriends, others lost their identity. We were together and all of us got through it.” After basic training, he took a long bus ride to Biloxi, MS, to Keesler Air Force Base. Harn says, “This was where I was to get my electronics training. On the way to Biloxi, our bus was hit by a buzzard in the front window. It was raining and it was a big mess. We had to limp into New Orleans to get another bus. This was like liberty to a bunch of the guys, and they took off for the liquor stores. Me, I stayed put and loaded up on the new bus when all the baggage was packed. The guys started to trickle back, but the ones that were not back in time got left behind. The driver was not very happy.”
He remembers that electronics school felt like a long, drawn-out process. “Learning about all the different things going on when an item is turned on. I had a few problems with some of the theory and actually failed a class. This caused me my only stress while I was in the Air Force. I was interviewed by the Captain in charge of the school and he offered me another job. I told him that I could work on the equipment when I got into the field and that I was just having a little problem with the fundamentals. I was informed that one more failure and I would be out of electronics and in another job. I had a couple of setbacks after that with a case of measles and my father passing away. I finally got out of school and was headed to Warner-Robins Air Force Base, in Georgia.”
He was living on Keesler Air Force Base, when Hurricane Camille blew through. He remembers it being a terrible mess, “We had just all stay in the hallways out of our rooms, because the gravel on the roof was doing a number on the windows and the cars parked below.” The surrounding area around the base was destroyed. Huge shrimp boats were washed up on land. Gigantic oil drums 30 feet tall were toppled over.
“I stood guard duty in a subdivision north of the base that was nothing but toothpicks. The only people I saw were the Salvation Army, in a Cantina truck, bringing hot meals to the guards with plenty of food on the plate and lots of beverages. The base did not suffer too much, and we were able to help the locals. They didn’t like the GIs too much before the storm, but after that storm we were treated much better.”
Over on the SAC side of Warner – Robins Air Force Base, the far side of the base, where the B-52s were kept was where Harn started working on with the electronics counter-measure systems. “I learned the scope and receiver equipment first. I was sent to other bases for training and did really well. At one school I attended, I ended up teaching part of the class because I was more informed than the factory representative.”
After a year at Warner-Robbins, he was sent to Thailand. “I was set up to work the flightline because I was big and could lift some of the heavy equipment. I worked on the black boxes that were used to detect and protect the aircraft from being shot down. Electronics Worker Technician was the proper title and the officer that flew the plane was called an EWO, Electronics Warfare Officer.”
Soon, it was time for Harn to move on, “I got orders for Minot, North Dakota. A week before I was supposed to ship out I got new orders to report to Omaha, Nebraska. That was Strategic Air Command Headquarters, and I was not happy with having to go there. I didn’t know anyone there and it was a totally different job than what I was doing. The B-52 had about eight different systems, and before I left Thailand I could work all of them. Now I was headed to a job that took another six weeks or more of school, and on totally different machines.”
Harn says while he never saw combat while in the service, but he did receive “all the normal metals everyone else did for service to our country and campaign ribbons for being overseas.”
“When I got back to the states the First Sergeant came to me and told me I needed to be at a Commander’s Meeting. I was worried because I needed a haircut, a mustache trim, and I needed to not be wearing my work uniform. I was shaking in my boots- that needed to be polished because they were scuffed. The general then gives a short presentation, and then presents me with the United States Air Force Commendation Medal for Exemplary Service Overseas, for the electronics repair work I did. I was so embarrassed and surprised because I thought I was just doing my job,” the humble veteran says.
When asked what his hobbies were or how they would entertain themselves during any down time, Harn says, “To pass the time I played cards or went outside, I also wrote poetry. I wrote poems for some of the guys for their girls or moms back home. Finally, I got those published in 2019.” Yes, this man is also an amazing writer and poet, among the many other wonderful things he has accomplished.
Regarding joining the military, Harn says, “Anyone planning to go into the service needs to understand upfront that it is a structured environment and discipline is a must. I believe that by playing a sport, you are better prepared for the Service’s team concept. One person fails to do their part, and the whole unit suffers. If you can’t handle being told when to eat or sleep this is not the job for you. You might have trouble anyway working as a civilian, thought- if you can’t work with a team attitude. There is huge work ethic required for the job.”
When asked if he has any advice for veterans who might be struggling, he stated, “Any veteran who needs help should ask. I know it’s a hard thing to do, we all have our demons. Some are taken care of others haunt us all the time. If you can’t talk to someone, try other avenues, like church or join an organization with people that think similar to you. There are people that will sit and just listen if you need to vent or just talk. Taking the first step is the hardest. I joined the DAV to help veterans, especially disabled ones.”
Thank you, Harlee Harne, and all veterans for your service!