I love my life. I love the challenges. I love the chaos, both self-inflicted and otherwise. I love the adventures, some chosen and others anything but. Most of all I love the people in my life. Like bright, shining stars, all my experiences, travels, challenges, and adventures would be nothing more than a dark and blackened sky were it not for the amazing people that have illuminated my path. My parents and my 5 sisters, and their kids. My wife, Jenny, and Olive, Victor, and the Krakens, Rex and Rocco. My Marines. The UNLEASHED. Ron Harris.
I’ve been writing blogs in strange places as of late. Today I find myself in the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. It is a flight I’d rather not be taking on another adventure I didn’t choose.
In 2002 the History Channel’s Modern Marvels show ran one called Axes, Swords, and Knives. It was a fascinating piece on the history and culture behind edged weapons. Featuring professors, historians, martial artists, blacksmiths, and engineers, it went into great detail exploring the origin, usefulness, and practical application of said items. Dr Ronald Harris, billed as an edged weapons expert, provided commentary and insight into specifically, knives. There was something about his presentation that immediately grabbed my attention. In his speech and demeanor was a clear understanding of the brutal lethality and potential efficiency of a properly employed blade. His look and delivery was not of arrogance, rather it was bemusement, but shown only in a way possible by a man who had been in and survived confrontations with edged weapons and was now speaking to “experts” that have not. I saw a rerun of the episode in early 2007 shortly after joining my new battalion, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, “Hell in a Helmet”.
In 2007 The Marine Corps’ combatives programs were, in my opinion, riddled with problems and struggling to gain any real traction with those who needed them most – the line units (the infantrymen) and especially the junior Marines! Sometime around 2000 or 2001, as a result of the push to become more politically correct and to create a gentler, kinder Marine Corps, the close combat program had gone through a transformation. The brutal and lethal L.I.N.E. training system went away and the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) was ushered in. A host of new, “non-lethal” techniques were introduced along with the “continuum of pain” to which our junior Marines were supposed to gently expose their adversaries until they decided to “tap out” and comply. To make matters worse, while lethal techniques were still included in MCMAP, they were primarily taught to those senior in rank – the guys that needed it the least. If that wasn’t bad enough each technique, when taught, was to be paired with ethics training. When learning the armbar to a take down, for example, at some point in the training session the Marines were to stop training and receive a lecture on a “warrior topic” to make them a more pure and ethical warrior. Believe it or not some of the topics were sexual assault awareness, and equal opportunity training. The end result was a training system that left the Marines that needed it most, poorly equipped to dispatch the bad guys in a close combat environment. Armbars, a window of pain, and sexual assault awareness are not the way to to make the grass grow with some dirtbag intent on pulling the pin of a grenade.
Ron is probably laughing right now as I write this. He was always able to see the humor in dire situations. He had a knack for pointing out the perversion by government of that which true and just.
After watching him on Modern Marvels I knew I had to find a way to train with him and get him to train my Marines. Enumerable awkward emails and phone calls told me that there was a lot dudes named Ron Harris’ out there. Most of them never replied. Occasionally one would write back firmly stating that they were not an edged weapons expert and were definitely not interested in training my Marines on knife fighting. And then I unearthed the phone number of a Dr Ronald Harris, Professor of Economics, School of Public Health at LSU. “No way this was the guy”, I thought to myself. I was determined, so I called. A month later, I was picking him up from the airport.
The training he provided my Marines and me was life altering. It changed the way I learned to practice combatives. He brought all of us bamboo training knives that he had a friend of his make. He told us to wear eye protection and leather gloves. 2 bruised, battered, and bloodied days later we understood the reason. Hell, Ron even earned himself a black eye and numerous contusions and scrapes. This training was as close to the real thing as we were going to get without stabbing each other with real knives. Prior to coming out he studied our training system, purchased an OKC-3S bayonet, and developed a set of maneuvers that would work for us based on the gear we typically wore while operating. He did everything in his power to ensure we were well trained with edged weapons. I had him over for dinner that evening and learned so much more about him. He shared stores of his tumultuous youth and strained family life growing up in Detroit and how that shaped his thinking. We discussed his passion for the martial arts and his deep love for his family, both immediate and extended. The conversation was fast and fascinating ranging from humorous collage campus anecdotes to his travels abroad in order to train mercenaries and rebel fighters. Places most sane people don’t willingly choose to go.
A friendship with Ron was a unique experience as he was a unique individual. Modest to a fault, highly active in thought yet deliberate in speech, it is tempting to use the “still waters run deep” cliché with him, but it doesn’t fit. With Ron the waters weren’t still so much as they were quietly but powerfully always sweeping past. His knowledge and understanding continued to stream line and evolve much like the banks of a 1000-year old river. Once winding, veering sharply left and right, crashing off hard protuberances of rock and stubbornly learned lessons, a shallow stream young in age, that was now deeper, moving more slowly, more measured. Sediments and grains of knowledge picked up along a lifetime of learning honed the path and deposited themselves into the depth of his knowledge. That was the Ron I knew. A great and dedicated family man. A patient and wise teacher of martial arts, economics, and public policy. A patriot. A warrior.
About a year later I was heading down to Fort Polk, LA to provide some training to an artillery unit that was going to be deploying to Iraq. I was able to break away for a couple of days and got to link up with Ron and his family. While we did do a good deal of training we spent most of our time on the go. It was Marti Gras and I had a lot to learn. Ron showed me a different kind of South, the Louisiana South. I learned of the true history of Marti Gras, the meaning behind each of the parades, and met the people. I was hosted by genuine Southern Gents and Ladies and experienced southern hospitality in the truest sense. Only 3 years past, I saw the devastation of Katrina and heard straight and true from her survivors. Like preachers from another place and time, they gave grim and impassioned testimony to God’s wrath and the government’s misdeeds.
We followed the Bacchus Day parade from the family friendly garden district, to the warehouse district, and then linking up with more of his friends, prepared to descend into Dante’s 7th level of hell, the French Quarter. Before departing for the French Quarter, the owner of the house opened an old wooden chest. It looked like it could have been on a dessert island under the foot of a one-eyed pirate. Out came blades of all shapes and sizes. Some were ornate and beautifully designed with intricately guilded hilts, others deadly simple and plane. No words were spoken. As cool as cucumbers everyone grabbed a knife and practiced a few stabbing motions with one or another before putting it down and picking up another. A few slashes, a parry. Nope. Not quite right. It was like they were trying on jeans. This went on for a few moments until everyone was happy with their implement of choice and had them stashed away somewhere on their persons. I stood in silence soaking it all in thinking about the little 3.75” Buck 110 I kept in my pocket. I felt like Will Smith in Men in Black. 48 sleepless hours after I had arrived at his house we found ourselves at Café du Monde, still alive and sharing stories, and laughing about the fact in less than 6 hours I was due back on base. Stinking and wearing the same cloths I traveled down in, I crawled my way back onto base feeling a bit wiser about life. Ron had that effect on people. He made them wiser.
In 2008 I was going back to Iraq, this time for a year-long deployment as part of a small Military Training Team. We would be assigned to an Iraqi unit and our job would be to advise, train, and mentor our Iraqi counterparts. Ron was adamant that I come out to see him to do some more training. I flew out to California where he was now living. He had me bring as much of my “kit” (the copious amount of gear Marines wear while operating) as I could and both my bayonet and my ka-bar (traditional Marine fighting knife). He wanted my training to be as realistic as possible. We figured out the best way for me to wear my gear. Where to locate my bayonet and my ka-bar so that I would be able to access them when adrenaline was pumping and movement was on instinct, alone. Ron was a master at what he did, a real artist in the purest sense of the word. A truly great creative force, like a modern day DiVinci or Michelangelo, he had the ability to combine both his mind and is heart into his craft. Nothing was left to chance. He trained me in every possible scenario. He also provided me a roof over my head and hot meals with his family. He refused to let me stay in a hotel. He wanted me to be surrounded by family before I deployed. His wife, in-laws, and his four sons, treated me like I was one of them. I left California as well trained as I could possibly hope for in the use of edged weapons.
It was work being friends with Ron. He challenged everything and everyone. To know him was going to make you a better person. He taught me that is was OK to not accept convention for conventions sake alone if I felt there was a better way. He encouraged me to find my own solutions, to create my own systems, and that I should listen to my instinct to defy ordinary and challenge all authority. He never asked a question he didn’t already know the answer to, and it forced me to ensure my chosen course of action was circumspect and well reasoned. His teachings and coaching style greatly influenced me as an athlete, teacher, and coach.
Ron Harris passed away recently. I’m flying into San Francisco to pay my respects to a great friend, mentor, and teacher. He was a modern day renaissance man. A learned scholar who was equally comfortable discussing the pros and cons of a particular healthcare system as he was parlaying the benefits of a cruzada grip versus icepick grip and when to use either, his impact on those with whom he taught, trained, and loved is vast. He was part of a rare breed of collage professors with real world, hard fought experience to back up his teachings. In the great tradition of our founding fathers he had a deep mistrust of big government. He believed in the power of the people to govern and take care of themselves. A fiercely loyal patriot he loved the constitution, and the right bear arms. A dedicated father and family man his wife and four sons will continue his legacy of service to others and to mankind. His eldest son, Radix, is now an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Ron will continue to live on in the hundreds of students he has taught, the Marines he trained, and in the making of the UNLEASHED. He will be missed but he will never be forgotten.
LIVE – GET STRONG – WIN