Dustin Harrison was seven days away from calling it quits as a private contractor, piloting a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air 350 with cameras and sensors for aerial survey. Then, on Sunday, al-Shabab Islamist extremists overran a key counterterror base in Kenya used by American forces. Harrison, 47, a 1990 Auburn High School graduate, was killed with two other Americans.
He had made his home in Tucson, Arizona, with his wife, Hope Harrison, and their 2-year-old daughter, Heaven Aviana.
“He was a special op. He had a pretty serious job,” his wife said. “He was ISR — intelligencer, surveillance and reconnaissance.”
After a dozen years of contract work that took him to numerous locations, including Afghanistan and this latest location in Manda Bay, Kenya, Harrison was ready to call it quits and spend time with his family, she said.
“When he came home, he was going to start looking for another job,” Hope Harrison said. Perhaps as a commercial pilot.
Harrison's last day in his two-month rotation would have been January 12. On Twitter, those who knew Harrison, wrote emotionally.
“You won't see any military honors for this man. You won't see his name in the news. You won't see high ranking official's praising his name …,” one of his comrades wrote. “You won't know the details of which he gave his life … Rest easy aviator. Your watch is finished.”
It was left to Harrison's employer, L3Harris Technologies, of Melbourne, Florida, to first send someone in person to notify his wife. But the couple owns two homes, and they went to the unoccupied one. So she got a phone call.
“I don't feel they get the credit they deserve. They put themselves at risk as any military man, and they get half the recognition,” Hope Harrison said about Department of Defense contractors such as her husband. “My husband has the heart of a military man.”
The second American killed was Army Spec. Henry J. Mayfield Jr., 23, of Evergreen Park, Illinois. The Department of Defense sent out a news release about him. The third American killed in the attack also worked for the contractor, but his name has not been released.
A good portion of U.S. military work now is being done by contractors, who “perform the full range of tasks needed in a deployed environment, from cooking to transportation to barber shops to security,” says Ben Watson, news editor for Defense One, which is part of Government Executive, a website that specializes in the business of government.
Harrison's older brother, Troy Harrison, of Fife, said his little brother wanted to fly since he was 9.
“He was just fascinated with planes,” he said. “My parents put him through flying school in Oklahoma. He was never interested in flying for airlines. He wanted the autonomy.”
So Dustin Harrison worked for an air-ambulance company that took children to hospitals, then as a personal pilot for an executive and then finally as a military contractor, his brother said. He says that Harrison never did give details about what his contracting work entailed, other than it was mostly in surveillance.
Kenya is a key base for fighting al-Shabab, one of the world's most resilient extremist organizations.
Hope Harrison said that she and her husband would talk regularly when he was deployed, “texting or FaceTime or FaceTime audio.” She said he would reassure her that being at a base was about the safest place to be.
“He was cool, calm and collected,” she said. She remembers that during one overseas conversation, when he was in Afghanistan, she could hear sirens in the background.
He told his wife, “Oh, I think we're getting attacked. We're fine.”
Hope Harrison says that their daughter has been asking about her father. Heaven's middle name, Aviana, reflects her father's love for flying. When Heaven would ask about her father during his deployments, his wife would say, “Daddy is in the sky at work.”
And now, how to make it all be comprehensible to a 2-year-old?
“In her mind, I think daddy will always be in the sky,” Hope Harrison said.
Services for Dustin Harrison are pending. There will be one in Arizona and one in the Seattle area.
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