SWAMPSCOTT — Grief is supposed to get easier with time, or so we’re told. For Raymond Harris, so far that is not the case.
His daughter, Marine Capt. Jennifer Harris, 28, was killed 11 years ago this month when the Sea Knight helicopter she was piloting was shot down in Iraq. All seven people on board died in the crash.
“Every day is hard for me,” her father said. “People keep saying it’s going to get better and it doesn’t.”
The loss of his wife, Rosalie, just over a year ago made things more difficult. Rosalie’s health declined steadily, he said, after the death of the couple’s only child.
Sitting in an armchair in the home he once shared with his family, Raymond Harris still becomes emotional as he thinks about his daughter’s death and the community that has continued to support him.
He is surrounded by photos of his family. Most are of Jennifer as an adult. There’s a family portrait with her parents and another portrait with her fiance, Chris. On the windowsill of the large window at the front of the house is the last picture Harris received of his daughter; she is wearing her helmet and sitting in a helicopter pilot’s seat, smiling.
Among the few childhood photos is one of Jennifer’s First Communion. In another, she is happily sitting on her dad’s lap; Raymond Harris beams as he holds his little girl.
“I’ve got pictures all over the place,” he said. “Maybe I shouldn’t, but people say, ‘No, it’s your house. Do what you want, Raymond.’”
Raymond was looking out that living room window on the early evening of Feb. 7, 2007, when he learned of his daughter’s death. He’d just come home from work.
“I see this big van coming in the driveway there,” he said. “And I asked my wife, ‘Did you order something from UPS?’”
But he quickly realized, as he saw men getting out in military uniforms, some wiping their eyes, what he was about to find out.
Capt. Harris had died an hour earlier, military officials told them. She had volunteered for one last mission, ferrying blood for wounded Marines, just days before she was to return home after completing her third tour of duty in Iraq.
“The day that happened, it was like my whole system went down the tubes,” Raymond said. “I couldn’t eat for a week. It took a long time and it still takes a long time.”
Living with loss
Since his wife’s death, he has fallen into a routine that revolves around the wife and daughter he has lost. He gets up early and as he walks out of his bedroom, he says “Good Morning” to his wife and daughter.
After breakfast and some morning television he drives to the cemetery. He does this every day, and the town has since provided him a key just in case he’s there after it closes.
Usually he spends about 20 minutes talking to his family. Rosalie Harris was buried next to her daughter, and there’s a spot there for him, too.
“We’re all over there together,” he said, referring to himself as if he’s already joined his family there.
After leaving the cemetery, he often goes to the town’s senior center and has lunch with friends he has made there. He also goes to Swampscott High School sometimes where there’s a memorial to Jennifer Harris.
Jennifer, he said, was a smart, energetic young woman with an unparalleled sense of adventure. She loved sports, and she excelled at them.
“She loved to run,” he said. “I could never keep up with her.”
She had many friends and loved to travel. She also enjoyed driving, whether it was to see friends out of state or to drive home from California, where she was based.
Jennifer was a career military officer, and she loved it, her father said, though he’s not sure where that came from.
“She talked about the military when she was younger,” he said, noting that her maternal aunt lived in Washington, D.C., and the family would visit them.
After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, she became a helicopter pilot with the Marines’ legendary Purple Foxes squadron. In Iraq, she flew missions to pick up wounded soldiers and take them to hospitals.
When she died, all her uniforms and other possessions were sent home to her parents. Raymond started to look through one of the boxes, but “I had to close it,” he said. “I can’t touch it.” It is too painful for him. Those things have since been brought down to the basement.
In the years since his daughter’s death, community support has been a source of comfort, helping Raymond continue to make memories as time pulls him further away from the days spent with his family.
He deeply admires Gov. Charlie Baker, also a Swampscott resident, who not only spoke at a memorial service for Jennifer Harris a few years ago, but has invited Raymond to spend holidays with him and his family. Baker also helped arrange for Home Depot to spruce up the Harris home, Raymond said.
“Raymond Harris is a wonderful person, and his daughter was an American hero who, because of the way she was raised by Raymond and Rosalie, exemplified the very best traits a person can have,” Baker said in a prepared statement. “The way Raymond has handled such tragedy with grace and class has been extraordinary.”
Friends also check in with him, and help keep him busy. The local Marine Corps League, which is named after his daughter, remembers her every year with a service at a memorial garden created near his house, and its members keep in touch and in support.
“The town has done a lot for me,” Raymond said, his voice cracking with emotion.
As he goes about his day, Raymond Harris said he believes his family is with him in spirit. Sometime he thinks he sees a shadow of his daughter.
“I have this feeling that she’s with me,” he said.
Arianna MacNeill can be reached at 978-338-2527 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SN_AMacNeill.