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Saturday 15 December 2018
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MARILYN HARRIS : Oh The Places You Will Go…

story by Nate Livesay     photos by Susan DeLoach
Marilyn Harris is a vibrant African-American women who has lived an extraordinary life. Looking at her you might imagine she is a former teacher and a grandmother, but you would be missing so much of her story.  Her story is incredible, She worked her way from the back of the commissary to the front of the Pentagon serving her country and her community at every stop.  Over the course of her career she earned 3 master’s degrees, top secret security clearances from the Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency and traveled all over the world as an investigator commissioned by congress.  She is and has been many things – mother, grandmother, teacher, counselor, writer, administrator, investigator and now “retiree” – but at the root of all those things has been the heart of someone who wants to serve others.
Growing up in a small southern town in the era of segregated schools and Jim Crow, the importance of education was instilled in Harris’s life.  She trained to be a teacher, receiving a bachelors degree and lifetime teaching certificate from the University of Missouri, and this background in education has been central to everything else she has done. She spoke of how happy she was that her parents saw her earn a college degree and of how proud she is that all three of her children have earned undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees.  She was advised that getting jobs in education with the  United States Government would be much easier if she had got her foot in the door by getting any government job.  So Harris, currently working as a teacher,  went and got one of the lowest grade positions in the commissary – since she didn’t want to be seen by her students or their families or coworkers of her husband, she volunteered to work in the back which her manager gladly gave her since everyone else always wanted to work in the front.  She worked a couple of months before her husband received orders and her foot in the door was gone or so she thought.  However, her prior government job made her eligible for an internship in the education department and so when they arrived at their next stop she became an intern working in education for the United States Department of Defense.
She entered this internship as the Vietnam War was ending and the decision had been made to professionalize the United States Army.  One of Harris’s first jobs was to work with soldiers who didn’t have a high school diploma to help them pass the test that would allow them to remain in the army without one.  She was given 6 weeks to teach and tutor them before they took the Armed Forces Classification Test that determined whether they could stay in the Army or whether they would be discharged and sent home.  This experience deeply impacted her as you could see the emotion on her face as she described the young men she worked with.”I had six weeks to train people who were unable to write their name and some of them I wonder about and think about to this day”   She described one soldier, a son of sharecroppers from Mississippi who desperately wanted to stay in the Army because it was his way out of poverty – he confided in Harris that the first pair of shoes that had ever been just his were his Army boots, but because he had no formal education he was unable to read or write.  She successfully petitioned for another six weeks to work with him, but even 12 weeks wasn’t enough to overcome his prior lack of education.  She described how he spent his tearful last day learning to sign his name so that he could endorse the check they were giving him before they put him on the bus back home.
This led to her next job as an Education Services officer setting up education centers for the U.S. Army at Fort Campbell, Germany and for a battalion of the 101st Airborne serving as part of a multi-national force on the Sinai Peninsula between Israel and Egypt.   She was responsible for working with various educational institutions to sign contracts and to set up schedules that would allow soldiers to earn a high school or college diploma during their assignment. Her work in setting up these education centers has helped countless soldiers acquire degrees that help them advance their careers and succeed in life beyond the military.
Her work with the contracting office paved the way for her to make the transition from education to contracting and acquisitions and she spent ten years as a working in this area for the U.S. Army European Command in Germany.
From 1996-1999, Harris worked for the Army Material Command based in the Pentagon, working in acquisitions and procurement.  At the Pentagon, she helped write policy but also reviewed multimillion dollar contracts for things like missile defense systems.  Her work at this post resulted in multiple promotions and earned her several Generals recommendations to attend the prestigious United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This was an incredible opportunity for a civilian and Harris made the most of it.  During her time at the war college she attended night classes at Shippensburg State University and on a day in early June of 2000, she graduated with two master’s degrees, one in Public Administration from Shippensburg State and another in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College.
Following her time at  the War College she continued working in Washington, D.C. and was often shuttled to meetings at the Pentagon and in fact was scheduled to attend a meeting in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Harris’s experiences and skillset allowed her to work her way up to the most important job of her career, that of Senior Procurement Official, Principal Assistant Responsible for Contracting, with the Army’s only Intelligence Command, INSCOM. This was in the years after 9/11 and required that she have top secret security clearances.  In this role, she was read into numerous top secret programs and was responsible for making sure the Army had everything it needed and occasionally for reigning in an overzealous General who wanted one of everything.
In 2005, she accepted a job as an investigator for the United State House of Representatives Appropriations committee.  This role required Harris to receive intense training and another round of security clearances, this time from the FBI and the CIA.  She was part of a team of investigators that were tasked with providing oversight on how government funds were being spent and investigating claims of fraud, waste or abuse. This meant lots of travel, sometimes by plane – sometimes in a Blackhawk helicopter.  She spent time in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Senegal investigating a U.S. based contractor who had received millions of dollars in contracts for training soldiers and refurbishing equipment.   She was also dispatched to U.S. Army outposts in Korea and Japan after reports of substandard living conditions for soldiers.  This extensive investigation led to improved living conditions for many soldiers in these bases.
In 2010, she was persuaded by a friend to spend her last four years before retirement as the Director of Policy for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.  In this role, she overhauled the procurement department and what had been a shorthanded and underperforming department was doing high quality work before her retirement in 2014.  Reflecting on her years of government service Harris said
“I was able to impact the lives of veterans who needed veterans benefits from home loans to college to medical care and finally burial services. I have supported soldiers throughout the span of their careers and their lives. I have no words to describe how much that means to me.  Mostly, I’m most proud of my government service because of all I learned from so many amazing people and in so many amazing roles.”
Harris retired in 2014 and bought a home on Dataw Island and moved to Beaufort in June of 2015.  Since she arrived in Beaufort, she has done anything but sit around and smell the roses though.  Throughout her life she has been active in service and in the community and her time here in Beaufort has been no different.  She renovated her Dataw Island residence and, continuing in the spirit of service she exhibited in her career as a teacher and decades of service as a civil servant, she gives seminars on women’s empowerment and is on the board of directors at the United Way of the Low Country and Second Helpings – a non-profit that provides food to the hungry in Beaufort County.  She also serves on the board of Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) a non-profit that works with the Small Business Administration to support small business.