A fixture in the Special Operations Forces community for decades, Major General (retired) Gary Harrell has recently succumbed to a lengthy battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, at the age of 71. He will be buried in Mountain View National Cemetery on Monday, February 20th, 2023. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has ordered flags over the State Capitol and state office buildings to be flown at half-staff in his honor.

Harrell during one of his many deployments. Location not noted. Photo courtesy of the United States Army

The general got his start in the military as part of East Tennessee State University’s ROTC program, where he graduated and received his commission in the United States Army in 1973. Harrell stayed in the Army he loved until finally retiring in 2008 as a Major General with 35 years of service. During that time, he served in combat operations in Panama, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to name but a few.

Harrell’s first assignment was to the 2nd Bn., 508th Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, where he served as a TOW (anti-tank) Platoon Leader and Rifle Platoon Leader. In 1977, the ambitious young officer completed the Special Forces Qualification (or “Q”) Course and was sent to the 3rd Bn., 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Ft. Gulick, Panama. Following the invasion of Grenada, Harrell served with the 10th Special Forces Group.

In 1985, he volunteered for and successfully completed training to become part of  1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D), a unit more commonly referred to as “Delta Force.”  During Operation Just Cause, Harrell was the only officer to enter the Modelo Prison in Panama during a mission to rescue American hostage Kurt Muse. While commanding Squadron C of 1st SFOD-D in April 1992, he led his men in numerous missions against Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

In 1993 he deployed as a Lieutenant Colonel to Somalia as a ground force commander during the battle of Mogadishu. His actions during Operation Gothic Serpent were portrayed in the popular book and film by the same name, Black Hawk Down.

His many service awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Bronze Star with “V” device, and the Purple Heart. In an article with The Christian Sportsman, the general tells the story of how he got that Purple Heart as a result of wounds suffered in Somalia.

“I was struck by a round from a 60mm Mortar that landed about 6 inches from my right foot, immediately killing Matt Rierson, an outstanding team leader who happened to be standing there talking with me and injuring a large number of other men.  My femoral artery was severed, right femur fractured and left tib, fib was fractured with lots of holes and fragments throughout my body.  I cannot explain why I did not die immediately, right there, but the only thing I know is the Good Lord must have said ‘not tonight’ and spared my life.  

In addition, I had some of the finest trained Special Operations Soldiers and Doctors working on me almost immediately.  All were working to save my life.  I flew across Mogadishu on the first Med Evac bird with Dr. Phil Volpe lying across my body to protect me from the ground fire and manipulating my femoral artery with his hands inside my thigh up to his wrists to prevent me from bleeding out or losing my leg.”