It is easy to get depressed watching the world descend into chaos. A resurgent Russia grows increasingly bellicose as it tries to reestablish the evil Soviet empire, as Ronald Reagan correctly characterized it; an aggressive China seems bent on implementing its own version of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere; and terrorist, genocidal armies are trying to force the Middle East to live under a brutal, Ninth century-style caliphate.
On the other side of the ledger, we have an administration indisposed to do much of anything to stop any of this. Indeed, it seems quite content to preside over the ongoing defunding and downsizing of America’s military forces, including our navy. Our forces are now rated as having only a “marginal” capability of prevailing in a two-war scenario. This at a time when we may need our military capability more than ever to keep this country safe.
So in the midst of being disheartened, it was most refreshing last week to attend an event that focused on what is all-too-easy to lose sight of: the virtue, dedication, and patriotism of those who serve voluntarily in our military, and of their families, who often undergo great hardship because of that service. The event was to celebrate the retirement of one of my longtime neighbors, Rear Admiral Sinclair M. Harris, after 34 years of service in the U.S. Navy.
The retirement ceremony was conducted at the Washington Navy Yard, the oldest naval shore installation in America. The British looted and burned it when they invaded Washington during the War of 1812, and it is still an important center of Navy operations today. My wife and I could feel its history and traditions just walking through it, on our way to the Sail Loft where the ceremony was held.
Admiral Harris’s story is an inspiring one that exemplifies what makes America so special and its military forces so unique. His is the tale of a child who grew up in single-parent household in southeast Washington and went on to become the vice director for operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He came from humble beginnings, raised by a mother who was divorced when Sinclair was only six months old. Having served as a WAC in the Army, she supported her family by working for the Postal Service. And she saved her money to make sure Sinclair could attend a good school: Gonzaga College High School, a Catholic high school that is the oldest educational institution in Washington.
Between his mother’s upbringing, a Jesuit education, and a close family with great role models, Sinclair Harris was launched on a career that took him from Gonzaga, to James Madison University in Virginia, to Officer Candidate School, and then to a long and distinguished naval career. Among those role models was an uncle, one of the first three black officers in the U.S. Air Force. Admiral Harris’s career included serving as the captain and commander of various ships and naval task forces. He took part in military missions ranging from Operation Enduring Freedom to the 2006 evacuation operation in Lebanon. And his amphibious Marine/Navy strike group provided humanitarian assistance after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi.
He earned a large collection of awards and medals, including some from Brazil and Colombia bestowed on him in recognition of his work in those countries as the commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and the U.S. Fourth Fleet. He even received commendations from the Marines, which tells you a lot about this naval officer.
The retirement ceremony made clear just how well-liked and respected Sinclair is. Navy, Marine, Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard officers and enlisted men and women filled the room – every branch of the military was represented. And the room was packed with families of every race and ethnicity, all united by a shared vision of patriotism and admiration for a man who has given 34 years of his life to serving his country, and for his wife Cora, who had endured long separations and worry when Admiral Harris had been in harm’s way.
When he spoke, Sinclair personally recognized the many mentors who had helped him throughout his career. And it was clear from the people my wife and I talked to in the room, that Sinclair had returned that favor, obviously spending his career mentoring and helping as many service members as he could.
Our military today exemplifies the best of America. It is a place where those from the humblest beginnings can rise to the highest level with hard work, education, dedication to doing their best, and a focus on helping others achieve their best, too.
So while I worry about the world, the dangers we face as a nation, and the problems of making sure that our military remains the best-trained, best-equipped fighting force in the world, there is one thing I don’t worry about. And that is the caliber of the men and women like Sinclair Harris who volunteer to fight our battles, to keep us safe, and to meet the high standards they impose on themselves. May they all have fair winds and following seas:
On seven seas we learn
Navy’s stern call:
Faith, courage, service true,
With honor, over honor, over all.