CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq (April 23, 2007) -- Having played baseball since age 5, Virginia all-state catcher Benjamin Harrelson was recognized as a potential, professional-level athlete on the verge of achieving a dream shared by many sports fans – a shot at the “Big League.”
April 23, 2007; Submitted on: 04/23/2007 09:23:29 AM ; Story ID#: 200742392329
By Cpl. Andrew Kalwitz, 2nd Marine Logistics Group
But the Danville, Va., native passed up the opportunity of signing a contract with the Atlanta Braves to instead sign a contract with the United States Marine Corps.
He now serves as a corporal and vehicle commander here with Maintenance Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 6, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward).
“I made my own decision and I wouldn’t change it,” he said.
With two cousins currently serving in the military and a great uncle who served with the U.S. Merchant Marines during World War II and the Korean War, it seems Harrelson was following a family trend. But Harrelson said he’s only following his father, who spent much time working to support his family.
“All he wanted for us was a better life,” Harrelson said.
Harrelson’s father, Mark, worked for a newspaper called the Caswell Messenger before becoming editor of the Danville Register. He later began working with Danville’s WAKG radio station and eventually started a second job, part-time, with the U.S. Postal Service in Greensboro, N.C. No longer with the radio station, he now makes the 41-mile trip to his full-time job at the post office where he has worked for almost 20 years.
Harrelson said his dad wasn’t able to spend much time with the family because he spent most of it working.
“I don’t blame him. I did the same thing,” said Harrelson, who has a wife and daughter awaiting his return from his seven-month deployment.
In his younger years, Harrelson never expected to be in his current situation. But he also probably didn’t expect he was meeting the future mother of his child when he met Sherri B. Walker while standing in a band camp formation at age 14.
“Seriously. It really was a formation,” he said, smiling at the thought of a non-military formation. “She stopped right in front of me and looked up at me.”
Harrelson recounted their first conversation.
“She said ‘your shoe’s untied.’ I just cracked a huge smile,” he said. “She asked me why I was smiling and I couldn’t even answer her. I couldn’t really think straight.”
Considering she was about two years older than him, it may have been the intimidation of an older girl that made him four months hesitant to ask her out. Regardless of the seemingly slow start, their relationship lasted beyond high school.
Separation seems to be as much a part of their relationship as anything. After graduating from George Washington High School, Benjamin attended Ferrum College and Sherri went to Virginia Commonwealth University. But the two managed to juggle academics and each other.
Harrelson said despite his passion for baseball, he wanted to further his education to have “something to fall back on.”
But just three months into his first year at the small, private school in the mountains of Virginia, Sherri discovered she was pregnant. He disenrolled after completing his freshman year to support his new family, which now included their newborn daughter, Savana.
“When she told me she was pregnant, I already knew I wasn’t going to stay in school,” he explained. “I was holding down three jobs at one point in time to support them. I would never see her because I was working so damn much.”
But the desire to take care of his family the way his father had done for him was something Harrelson wanted to emulate. Weighing his options, he visited a nearby recruiting office to see if military service might be the answer he was looking for.
Harrelson said he was originally seeking a future in the Air Force. But since the Air Force recruiter wasn’t in his office, a gunnery sergeant from the Marine Corps office next door quickly accommodated him.
“He pulled me into the Marine Corps office for probably a good three hours,” Harrelson said smiling.
He decided he was going to enlist and broke the news to Sherri, who was initially unhappy but supportive nonetheless. He left for basic training November 2004, having to leave 6-month-old Savana behind.
The trials of family separation were to continue for the Harrelsons. Between Marine Corps recruit training, combat training and his job specialty school, Harrelson spent ten months away from his wife and daughter even before deploying to Iraq. Perhaps when she’s older, his daughter will understand his absence as the byproduct of a decision he made for her.
“Every night she has to have a kiss from me and then another kiss from me for him,” Sherri Harrelson said during a telephone interview.
Prior to leaving, Harrelson said he did his best as a father to explain his upcoming, seven-month absence.
“She’s too young to understand,” he said. “I had to tell her I had to help people who were sick. It would have been harder had I not explained it to her that way.”
“Would I change my mind if I could go back?” Harrelson asked himself and sighed. “Probably not. I was just 19-years-old trying to do the best thing I could do for my life. Turns out I was pretty right.”
Harrelson said he can’t help but recall catching for the Braves in the bullpen during their warm ups. He had gotten his foot in the door with the professionals as a high school athlete, but tells few people about those days now.
“Bottom line: family is more important to me than playing baseball,” he said.
Some may say his enlistment contract didn’t satisfy his financial and family-oriented motives to the extent the baseball contract would have. But Harrelson feels that the two life-insurance policies, medical coverage and the college fund he has been able to build for his daughter, who “is healthy as can be,” contradict that claim.
In addition, Harrelson’s decision enabled his wife to pursue a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, N.C., while he is deployed. She said she feels baseball would have gotten them off to a slower start toward stability and kept him from the family for more time than his duties in the Marine Corps.
“My impression of (professional baseball) was unless you’re pretty high up, the money really isn’t that great,” she said. “And it’s not like going to Iraq for seven months. It would have been a more continuous thing. He would’ve been gone a lot; during the off-season too.”
Though Savana may not yet understand her father’s responsibilities, she understands his absence and keeps him close at heart. During a visit to the Easter bunny this past holiday, she was given an American flag, which she told her mother would need to be sent to daddy.
Harrelson said he no longer has time for baseball and he needs to learn to “put that time toward family.”
He was not present for his second marriage anniversary and his daughter’s first Christmas and New Year’s. He also nearly missed her first birthday.
“Just like this guy right here,” he said pointing to one of two Marines in the dusty, Fallujah living quarters with him. “His wife is pregnant and about to have a baby any day. And Clark – his wife is in labor right now… You know what they say though – absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
The Harrelsons both agree being apart has been difficult. Though Sherri said she would prefer to be near her husband, she is proud of what he is doing and respects him for it.
“I think that anyone who can go over to Iraq is incredibly brave,” she said. “And he’s had nothing bad to say. Everything he’s said has been really positive. He seems to have gotten more spiritual and has a better value of life.”
Her husband’s change may or may not have occurred if he had chosen the baseball route, but she said she’s happy with his choice. She was only unhappy with her involvement, or lack thereof, in his decision to turn down a contract with the Braves.
“She didn’t know until well after I got to the fleet. I didn’t want her to think I was giving up on my dream so I could be with her,” Harrelson said. “My dream was being with her.”
So far, it appears Harrelson’s dreams have come true, which he credits to his decision to serve.
“There are a lot of ups and downs in the Marine Corps,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of those ups. The Marine Corps did a lot for me.”
Harrelson said he is very content serving in the military, which has given him “so many opportunities.” But regardless of the honor there may be in his decision, a Marine is human and can’t help thinking, what if?
“When baseball comes around, I still think, ‘What if I would’ve done that?’” he said. “My philosophy on life is you can’t look at the past. If you do, you’re just going to get stuck there.”
So instead, Harrelson looks to the future.
When he returns from deployment this fall, the Harrelsons said they will buy a house and pay off their vehicle and any bills that may have been accrued. Sherri said she hopes to become an elementary school teacher and get a master’s degree so she can become a college professor.
But they are once again faced with the same question – How will they make this happen? Fortunately, it requires the same solution.
“I’m going to re-enlist,” Harrelson said.