Northwest Mississippi Community College automotive technology student John Harrell (seen below) was headed home from his second tour in the Iraq when it happened. The Marine machine gun squad leader had been selected to go out as a senior leader to show the relief battalion an observation point he was most familiar with. The group was only 200 meters from the observation post when they drove by an improvised explosive device (IED).
“The driver was new, and he did not swerve past it,” Harrell said.
Shrapnel from the blast hit Harrell on the head, the back of the shoulder, and in his back. “The lights went out for a second, but then I got my rifle,” he said. “I had a piece of metal sticking three-inches into my brain. I was bleeding profusely, and I took it out and the bleeding stopped. I wasn’t sure if I would live through it. It was all I could do to remain conscious,” Harrell said.
Harrell’s journey to Iraq would bring him home with a Purple Heart and several other military awards, and give him a new direction in life. What had begun as a part-time job during college, would now become his chosen course of study at a new college, and ultimately will lead him to a new career.
Harrell was born and reared in Faulkner, MS, near the town of Ripley. The 29 -year old and his two siblings were some of the first homeschooled children in the state.”It was a great experience for me,” he said. After he finished high school he went to Northeast Mississippi Community College for a couple of years studying Business Administration, but he did not complete a degree. It was during that time that he began working as an auto mechanic part time.
Early in 2001, he was working in Memphis and decided a military career might be best. “I was interested in the Marine Corps and had talked to a recruiter at Northeast. I signed up, but a knee injury prevented me from going to boot camp right away, so I put it on the back burner,”: Harrell said.
Then Sept. 11 happened. “9/11 changed my attitude. I thought it was something I needed to do. I was answering a call. I just wanted to give my service for my country,” Harrell said. Even though he had scored highly enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to have any job he wanted, he opted for the Infantry. “I wanted to go into the Infantry. I had a real commitment to that because of what happened.”
After boot camp and Infantry school in San Diego, Harrell was on his way to the Middle East. He was involved in the initial invasion from the southern border and the east, and saw action leading up to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He also served in Fallujah, one of the worst areas in Iraq. “Every time we would go out, there were lots of IEDs and mortars in the areas we were in. I had plenty of near misses while I was there,” he said.
After the IED hit the vehicle Harrell was in, he was transported to a medical facility in Fallujah. “The first doctors did not realize how deep my head wound was. There was a lot of swelling in the brain,” Harrell said. He was sent to Germany and taken immediately to surgery by an American brain surgeon who was volunteering his service to the military. That surgeon recognized Harrell’s situation and basically saved his life. Harrell returned to the states was discharged with a medical retirement, and got married within a week. He moved back to the Ripley area. He and his wife are the parents of a daughter, Leah.
After working for himself as a handyman, he decided he wanted to return to working in the auto industry. He heard about the Chrysler College Automotive Program (CAP) at Northwest after asking around at several dealerships. “A couple of them told me what a good program it was, so I decided to give it a try,” Harrell said. After speaking with Northwest CAP instructor, David Yount, he was accepted into the program and began attending Northwest in August, 2007.
“I really like the program. Mr. Yount is a wealth of knowledge, and the Chrysler program is a good course. It keeps you busy, and you are always learning,” Harrell said. CAP students are screened in areas such as work ethic, ACT scores and grade point average before they can enter the program.
Students spend their first semester in the classroom before they go to a dealership for a paid internship where they work under a mentor. Curriculum is constantly being updated to remain consistent with Chrysler technology. Students in the CAP program complete all requirements in all technical and general academic courses and will earn an Associate of Applied Science degree. Chrysler is the only automotive program that mandates students to have an associate degree, according to Yount.
Some of the classes Harrell took at Northeast will transfer, and he hopes to complete his associate degree in Business Administration as well as complete the CAP requirements. “The injury has made my processing slow, so this is really experimental for me,” Harrell said at the end of his first semester. “We will see what happens.”
Harrell was named to the President’s List his first semester. Students who complete 12 or more semester hours with a grade point average of 3.75 or better in a four-point system are on the President’s List.
Submitted by Michael A. Collins
National Manager, Career & Technical Education
School of Technical Training