A Woman Who Dreamed of Flying with the Marines Capt. Jennifer Harris lived her dream of flying with the air wing of the Marines in Iraq, where she piloted Sea Knight helicopters on combat rescue missions. After three tours, she was due back in her hometown of Swampscott, Mass., this week. But last week, Harris was killed aboard a Sea Knight that was shot down by Sunni insurgents northwest of Baghdad.
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A Woman Who Dreamed of Flying with the Marines

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A Woman Who Dreamed of Flying with the Marines

A Woman Who Dreamed of Flying with the Marines

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The U.S. military now confirms that the helicopter that crashed last week northwest of Baghdad was shot down by Sunni insurgents. The pilot on that Sea Knight helicopter was 28-year-old Jennifer Harris, a Marine captain who was killed along with six others on board. Harris served three full tours in Iraq. She was the first servicewoman from Massachusetts killed there, and she was due to come home in a week.

NPR's Chris Arnold has this remembrance.

CHRIS ARNOLD: Jennifer Harris stood out, both in the Marine Corps in Iraq, where she was one of just a handful of women flying helicopters on combat rescue missions, and back in her hometown of Swampscott, Massachusetts. It's a small town on the coast north of Boston. Peter Sack(ph) was the principal of the high school when Harris went there and knew her well.

Mr. PETER SACK: You know, there are people who walk in my office and you just feel good because they're there, you know? She lit up my room, she lit up the office and she lit up this school.

ARNOLD: Harris grew up in a working-class family. In high school, she was a sailing instructor. She volunteered at the library and a local hospital. She was a class officer all four years, a top student, National Honor Society. The school gives out two good citizenship awards every year, usually to two different people. Harris won them both.

Mr. SACK: Jennifer Harris was a superstar, and she would blush at that if she were in this room right now, and I wish to God she were. She didn't realize how great she was.

ARNOLD: Sack says unlike most teenagers, Harris always struck him as being confident and very comfortable with herself, and that stood her well when the skinny kid who played the flute in the school band grew up, starting working out, made it into the Naval Academy at Annapolis and joined the Marines.

Mr. MATTHEW MALONE (Superintendent of Schools): And they're going to take over the escorting of the casket into the church.

ARNOLD: Matthew Malone, the superintendent of schools, is in his office making phone calls to help arrange the military funeral coming up in a few days. Malone himself is a Marine and a veteran of the first Gulf War.

Mr. MALONE: She flew a MEDEVAC, which is - MEDEVAC (unintelligible). You know, they're coming, you're going to be okay. So if you get shot, and you hear the chopper coming in to get you, these are the folks who come and save you, and that's what she did. She flew 911 for the Marine Corps.

ARNOLD: Malone says it's one of the most dangerous jobs in the military, and Harris did it extremely well to have risen in rank so quickly. As a 28-year-old captain, Harris outranked most of the other veterans in town, even though many were twice her age. That didn't stop her from joking around with them. Malone says the guys at the local veterans' hall loved her.

Mr. MALONE: But at the same time, she was tough, and you could tell that she was an officer. She had command of presence to her, and she was impressive.

ARNOLD: Robert Labrano(ph) grew up next door to Jennifer Harris. They were a duo as little kids. She was at his house all the time. Last week when Labrano saw all the cars in front of Harris's house, he thought she'd just gotten back from Iraq, but then he heard that she'd been killed.

Mr. ROBERT LABRANO: You know, I ran down to the house, and my mom was already there, and the Marines were there, and it was just awful.

ARNOLD: Labrano's been going through old pictures this week - birthday parties where he sat next to Harris. He says he was always the wilder one, climbing trees and jumping out of them to impress her. He says Harris was more levelheaded. She didn't take stupid risks, but she always liked adventure. She loved sailing, and Labrano thinks all that drew her to the Naval Academy.

Mr. LABRANO: I think it's just the excitement of doing something different and not going through, you know, the four year college thing that, you know, must of us were doing.

ARNOLD: Another friend of Harris's is Navy pilot Matt Ventimilia(ph), who knew her at Annapolis. He spoke to us on his way in from the airport to help with the funeral.

Mr. MATT VENTIMILIA (United States Navy): She was so close to coming home, and she was so excited to go do what she was going to go do next and take a little break from getting shot at every day.

ARNOLD: Harris's next assignment was going to be teaching ROTC at George Washington University, though Ventimilia heard her superiors were asking her if she wanted to join the pilots that fly Marine One, the president's helicopter.

Mr. VENTIMILIA: So that just gives you an idea of, you know, the caliber of pilot she was.

ARNOLD: Ventimilia says you couldn't ask for a better friend, either.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

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