Marine veteran killed in Ukraine credited with saving teammate’s life

"I have never been so proud to be an American or a Marine," Harris wrote to his parents. More than 30 U.S. veterans have died in Ukraine since February 2022.
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Thomas Gray Harris
Marine veteran Thomas Gray Harris died in Ukraine on Nov. 24, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Richard B. Harris.)

Marine veteran Thomas Gray Harris delivered a baby during a medical internship in Ghana, helped fellow veterans access services from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and officiated a Marine buddy’s wedding after becoming an “internet minister.”

Harris filled his life, his parents told Task & Purpose, with acts of compassion.

It was this protective instinct that prompted him to travel to Ukraine in August and join the country’s International Legion, they said. One of his battle buddies in the unit named Gino later told Harris’ parents that their son had saved his life.

In late October Harris was shot in the right arm and took shrapnel from a grenade to his left side during a fierce fight with Russian troops, said his father Richard B. Harris, a retired Marine colonel.

After recuperating, Harris was killed in a Nov. 24 car crash while on the way back to the front line. He was 33 years old.

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“While we are devastated by the loss of our son, we are proud of him and his service to freedom,” his father and mother Suzzanne said in a statement to Task & Purpose.

“We are grateful that he was happy during his last days when he wrote to us that: ‘This is so much better than my old life. Every day, I get chills. I am so happy. Having saved [my battle mate] Gino’s life is the most rewarding feeling, and being loved by the team is the best feeling ever. I have never been so proud to be an American or a Marine.’”

Harris joined the Marines in August 2009 and deployed to Afghanistan from December 2010 to July 2011, according to his service record, which was provided to Task & Purpose. He left the Corps as a lance corporal. His last duty assignment was with 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

His military awards include the Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Unit Commendation, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, and NATO Medal – ISAF Afghanistan.

During his deployment to Afghanistan, Harris conducted security operations against the Taliban in the Marjah district, according to his obituary.

“He was a proud Marine,” Harris’ obituary says. “His greatest desire was to experience life to its full measure. Thomas was a steadfast warrior, defender, and friend to all who knew him. He will be missed.”

More than 30 U.S. military veterans have died in Ukraine since February 2022, of which at least 11 served in the Marine Corps, according to a list compiled by Task & Purpose. Some of the other Marine veterans who have died in Ukraine include Ethan Hunter Hertweck, Graham Dale, and Joel David Beal.

After spending his early years in foster care, Harris was adopted shortly before he turned 3, and his first home was at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, according to a eulogy written by his parents.

Growing up, Harris embraced golf and martial arts, both of which require learning how to adapt to any environment or circumstance, his parents wrote. He would go on to use the lessons he learned from both pursuits to excel in the Marine Corps, college, and ultimately in Ukraine.

“As an example, I texted him while he was in Ukraine about what he was doing to prepare for the next operation,” the eulogy says. “He responded, ‘I just PT, practice, listen to gangster rap (that is another story), and visualize like I did for golf.’”

After Harris’ death, his father received a letter from Gino, the teammate whose life Harris had saved.

“For me, how we met so amazingly on the train (from Poland to Ukraine) always held up as a divine appointment,” Gino wrote. “To me; he was sent to be there in my hour of need.”

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