Corps Fills Void in Life

Pfc. Joseph M. Harris, from Corona, Calif., inspects his marksmanship badge on and his uniform for correct alignment in preparation for inspections.

Becoming a Marine was one of the few things 25-year-old Pfc. Joseph M. Harris, Platoon 1052 hadn’t accomplished in his life until today, as he graduates from boot camp with Company C.

Harris, a native of Corona, Calif., has done everything from being a dominate athlete in sports to saving the lives of several people.

“I’ve done a lot in my life, but I still felt like something was missing,” said Harris. “I have always wanted to be in military, and joining the Marine Corps was the best decision I ever made.”

His interest in the military came after his six-year dominance in gymnastics, where he placed among the top three in every competition and was named the best all-round male gymnast in California.

He also won an international competition and competed on the Southern California all-star team. He said at the age of 14 he began coaching high school cheerleaders the skills that took him four hours-a-day, six-days-a-week of practice to achieve.

As an accomplished gymnast in nearly every event including floor exercise, high bars and vault, he wanted to try something new. During his second year in high school, he decided to join the football team.

At 5 feet, 1 inch tall and 115 pounds his friends said he was too small to be a football player. He started on the varsity team as a strong safety and running back, then became a linebacker when his coaches noticed his ability to tackle other players. He made eight sacks in one game and set a new high school record.

As he played football, he became interested in the Naval Sea Cadet Program after reading an advertisement in the newspaper.

“The program looked fun and it was something new for me to do,” said Harris. “It gave me an interest in the military but it also took me on another path.”

The training Harris received as a sea cadet inspired him to help people. He attended a two-week medical care course at Naval Medical Center San Diego, where he observed Navy corpsmen provide treatment for patients.

At 17 he became a volunteer firefighter with the Riverside County Fire Department in Riverside, Calif. After receiving a degree in fire technology and attending the fire academy at Riverside Community College, he was promoted to crew leader and squad operator and was placed in charge of several other fire fighters.

“After being a firefighter for several years I wanted to get my paramedic’s license so I could help people more,” said Harris.

He went back to school to obtain his license and became a firefighter paramedic.

However, he felt as if he was not being used to his potential since he wasn’t given the opportunity to help many people. He made the decision to transfer to Rural Metro in San Diego as a paramedic where he received an award from the fire department for excellence in patient care.

“It’s always been his nature to help people,” said Nikki, his mother. “It’s amazing how he will go out of his way to help others.”

Harris was on vacation with his parents Steve and Nikki at the Colorado River in Blythe, Calif., when he rescued a child from drowning. He said he was on a boat with his parents when he heard someone crying for help.

They pulled their boat up to the shore so Harris could access the situation. He jumped into the water to help the drowning child.

“When I swam up to the boy, I saw the body of a man floating in the water,” said Harris as he recalled the fateful day. “I told the child to grab onto my neck and hold as tight as he could. Then I grabbed the man and pulled them to shore.”

Harris said the child was in good condition when they got to the shore but the man was unconscious. He performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the man until emergency medical services arrived on scene.

He gave the police officers his story and continued his vacation after the situation was over.

Several months later he received a letter in the mail stating that he was being awarded a Distinguished Service Medal from Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for risking his life while off-duty.

“I didn’t think I needed an award,” said Harris. “I thought I was doing what I normally do, which is helping people.”

During the award ceremony, Harris learned what actually happened during the incident.

The two victims were part of a church group from Palm Springs, Calif.

The young child was having trouble swimming so the church leader swam out to help him. During his rescue attempt, he had a massive heart attack, and later died at the hospital, said Harris.

Several months later he was awarded again for his actions that day. The city council of Corona awarded Harris with a commendation that was presented by the town’s mayor.

As his life veered away from his interest in the military to the firefighter and paramedic field, he began to feel the void in his life.

Many firefighters and paramedics who worked with Harris were reservists or former Marines – many of whom mentored Harris throughout his career.

“I had an uncle and several co-workers who were Marines,” said Harris. “I liked how they presented themselves with confidence and professionalism.”

The influence of the Marines in his life rekindled his interest in the military. He left his current job as a paramedic in San Diego and went on military absence so he could fill the hole he has felt for several years.

Harris again found himself helping other people, but this time it was in boot camp.

“He has helped improve the training for other recruits because he could better explain some of the first-aid knowledge the recruits have to learn,” said Staff Sgt. Marvin Reyes, drill instructor, Platoon 1052 and a native of Chicago.

Whether in Marine Corps boot camp or in the civilian world, it is Harris’ nature to help other people. After Harris graduates today, he will continue his training at the School of Infantry, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., to become a Light Armored Vehicle crewman and begin his service to his country as a reservist.