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Army drew NC native to help women in crisis. She’ll be recognized in front of thousands

Chapel of Four Chaplains Legion of Honor Bronze Medallion (UA Little Rock/Released)

Growing up, Raleigh native Patricia Harris used to put on her father’s American Legion cap for two-minutes every day — that was as long as he would allow.

“To be a legionnaire, you have to earn the right to wear this cover,” her father said to her.

More than 40 years later, Harris is the North Carolina national vice commander of the nonprofit veterans service organization, and will receive the Chapel of Four Chaplains Legion of Honor Bronze Medallion, a service award, at this year’s convention.

She’ll receive the award Thursday in front of thousands of veterans, who traveled to Charlotte from across the country for the 104th annual American Legion’s national convention. This is the third year Charlotte hosted the convention, which decides on changes to the group’s operations, recognizes members with honors, hosts speakers and forums and allows legionnaires to meet one another.

“It’s a huge reunion,” said Michael E. Walton, the chairman of the Legion’s convention commission.

A legionnaire for life

Born and raised in Raleigh, Harris was the child of two parents in the military. Her father was a World War II veteran, and her mother was in the American Legion’s auxiliary.

Harris joined the Army in 1980, and served for 15 years. Harris’ parents wanted her to go to a university close by and join the Army Reserves. But Harris wanted something different.

She worked with elements of 18th Airborne Corps, 3rd ACR, 10th Mountain, Fort Campbell and other forward elements as combat service support. She also served as a communications non-commissioned officer, working with equipment for battlefield communication. She was stationed everywhere from Fort Hood, Texas, to Iraq as a part of Operation Desert Storm.

The American Legion has always been a part of her life, she said. That includes being part of the Legion’s auxiliary for juniors when she was a child at the Charles T. Norwood American Legion post 157 in Raleigh.

Now, Harris is North Carolina’s first woman and African American to serve as the Legion’s state’s commander.

The Four Chaplains

The award Harris will receive Thursday — the Chapel of Four Chaplains Legion of Honor Bronze Medallion — is grounded in the story of four army Chaplains in 1943 that gave up their life jackets on a sinking ship so that others could live. The medallion is awarded to people who provide a level of service that affects the lives and well-being of a large number of people.

And Harris’ parents raised her to be a giving person.

Harris said she feels compelled to give back to the veteran community because of the challenges that she’s faced and witnessed in the military — including domestic abuse and sexual assault. As a non-commissioned officer, she has seen those who struggle to find safe housing outside of the military base because they did not have the rank to be provided with homes inside with their families, Harris said

As the second-highest award in the Legion’s honors program, both Harris’s work with the American Legion, and her own personal mission to help female veterans was considered.

The red shoe experience

Her mission to help female veterans in crisis started when she realized there was no organization that did so after she returned to Raleigh from her deployment in the Gulf War in 2007.

She wanted to create something that could help women in crisis when they needed it, which is not always during normal business hours. That’s why she makes sure her organization, Women Veterans Support Services, can be reached at any time, day or night. And she draws on the national network of veterans in the American Legion to ensure services reach as many people as possible.

Harris said her community in the American Legion helps in her nonprofit service because the national network of veterans help her reach those in need if she can’t physically be there.

“We get calls from every state, so they can put human eyes on a person we can’t see if we are talking to them (on the phone),” she said.

The Red Shoe Experience is the name for the full package of programs offered by Women Veterans Support Services, which includes support for homelessness, domestic violence and sexual assault. Harris focuses on finding housing and shelters for those in need that allow family members, and even pets, to stay together. Other programs they provide are support groups and job preparation and placement.

The story of the red shoe comes from Harris helping a mother and her three children who were found at a Veterans Affairs building in Raleigh. They were living in nearby woods, so Harris put them up in a hotel, bought them clothes and food using her own money.

The next day, Harris took them to the Veterans Affairs homeless shelter. Harris said she walked in to hear one of the children describing her to a social worker as a pretty lady with red shoes. She used the idea to market the nonprofit’s programming.

She stills serves as the executive director of the organization. She doesn’t get paid for her position because the thousands of dollars the organization raises every year goes towards helping veterans in need.


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