Memoirs Of Command: Admiral Sinclair M. Harris

Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris is a native of Washington D.C. He is a 1981 graduate of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he received a Bachelor of Science in Economics. His early sea assignments include tours aboard USS Long Beach (CGN 9), USS Vincennes (CG 49), USS Jarrett (FFG 33), USS Coronado (AGF 11), and as commissioning executive officer in USS Benfold (DDG 65).

He commanded USS Comstock (LSD 45) during Operation Enduring Freedom and Amphibious Squadron 4/Iwo Jima Strike Group during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief – Hurricanes Katrina/Rita in 2005 and non-combative evacuation operation of Lebanon in 2006.

Ashore, Harris’ assignments include tours in the Washington-area at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in the National Defense University; the Navy staff in the Assessment Division (OPNAV N81) Campaign Analysis, Modeling and Simulation branch; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (J-5) Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate as the Global Security Affairs Division chief for Security Assistance. He was a senior fellow in the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group (SSG XXVI). In May 2008, Harris returned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as the deputy director, Expeditionary Warfare Division (OPNAV N85B). He was assigned as the commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 5 from 2009 to 2010 providing Foreign Disaster Relief during the Pakistan Floods of 2010. Harris then served on the Chief of Naval Operations staff as the director, Navy Irregular Warfare Office/Future Concepts from 2010 to 2012. Harris’ most previous assignment was as Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet.  He now serves as vice director for operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Harris earned a Master of Science in Operations Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1989 and is a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. He also earned a Master of Arts degree in Defense and Strategic Studies from the University of Madras, India’s Defense Services Staff College in Tamilnadu, India.

Harris’ decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, and various other unit and campaign awards.

What was your command wins?  While each of my at sea commands where very different, the most rewarding part of any was seeing Sailors (Enlisted, Chiefs and Officers) advance.  I gave them command coins (my nickel and not the government’s money) when they did and it was a tremendous joy.  Success breeds success and public recognition of shipmates promoting, making rate, being awarded, and passing classes as part of the PACE program were all high points.  Next to that were the team wins. USS COMSTOCK (LSD 45) won the Battle E during my predecessor’s tour.  We won it again twice while I was in Command.  And, I believe my successor won it again.  No matter who was wearing the sheriff’s badge (Command at Sea insignia), it was the CREW who made USS COMSTOCK the best Gator in the Fleet.  As Commodore of Amphibious Squadron FIVE, I had the chance to visit many great ships and deploy with them to Med and the Gulf.  Every O6 (including me) in the Amphibious Squadron made Flag or GO (MEU Commander) which shows that winning comes by working TOGETHER.  Some, like VADM Dee Mewbourne made it to three stars.  And, I am proud to call them all Shipmates.  From helping our fellow Americans in the aftermath of Hurricanes KATRINA and RITA, to the safe assisted departure (NEO) of over 14,000 Americans from Lebanon, the IWO JIMA ARG/24 MEU performed admirably in every situation.

Commodore Harris checks in with the Galley Team while serving as Commander, Amphibious Squadron FOUR

What were your command losses?  In the first three days of command of COMSTOCK two things happened that hurt me to the core. First, two of my Sailors were injured by a low-pressure steam piping rupture and had to hospitalized with 2nd degree burns.  I also had to take six Sailors to Captain’s Mast for a series of incidents ashore.  Every Captain feels personal responsibility for the safety of the men and women they are fortunate enough to lead.  No Captain likes taking away rank, money, or time from her/his Sailors.  Unfortunately, being at sea is inherently a challenging place and you have to keep discipline or all is lost.

Award ceremony on USS COMSTOCK (LSD 45).  

What were your command priorities?  Our priority was to do what our nation called us to do.  Be it in good weather or foul; be it easy or hard; be it in peacetime or war.  Mission First and People Always.  I think every COs would say something similar.  We in the Navy (and Armed Forces) are the folks that get things done.  We don’t make excuses and we don’t ever quit.  We do take as many precautions as we can, but we are about the mission.  And, at the same time, we take care of our people.  On COMSTOCK my command philosophy was simple and I did not have to make it up.  It was the ship’s motto that came from CAPT Hank Howe, the USS COMSTOCK’s first Commanding Officer.  TEAMWORK-DRIVE-COURAGE. Everything that I wanted of each of us on USS COMSTOCK was in those three simple words.

RDML Harris visiting the Engineering Spaces while serving as Commander, ESG FIVE.

What is your best advice for a Naval Officer? Don’t ever think yourself better than the people you are privileged to serve as their Commanding Officer.  I may have been the ship’s captain with a nice cabin to sleep and my own chair on the bridge, but I didn’t consider myself special.  I was no more loyal, or more patriotic,  or more devout,  or more heroic, or even smarter than the young men and women I served as Commanding Officer.  Did I demand respect as the CO, absolutely…and I tried to give it in return.  And, I wanted the same done at every level in the chain of command.  I depended on a strong crew and they depended on me to do my job as well.

Commander Alysa Ambrose visits RADM Harris, Commander US Fourth Fleet as she heads to Command of the USS GRAVELY (DDG 107)

What books do I recommend reading prior to command?  This is a very personal question so I know there will be folks that push back, but so be it.  First, the Bible.  You can call me a “holy joe” or dismiss this  as just one of many spiritual texts, but it is what has guided me throughout my life and career…including command.   All the leadership lessons, and even more important “follow-ship” lessons I have learned came from it.  Second, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  It lays our good gouge that I have gone back to time and again.  The last book I would recommend is either The Servant Leader or Servant Leadership.  I think the titles says it all.  I have read many other books and articles, but I would start with these three.

Commodore Harris calling numbers in BINGO on USS IWO JIMA (LHD 7) with the CMC.

Anything else you ask?  I recommend that any Commanding Officer make sure that his or her spouse is supportive of the assignment.  I don’t know what I would have done without Cora’s wisdom, support of the families, and care.  No crew can sail into the unknown without confidence that their loved ones are being looked after while they are away so long from home.  Cora Harris was always present and active in helping to care for all the Navy families she met from Desert Storm, through 9/11 response to my final assignment in US FOURT FLEET.  Second, I have served under some of the finest officers to wear the uniform and learned much from them all.  I will share just one bit of wisdom comes from Mark E. Ferguson, Commissioning Commanding Officer of the USS BENFOLD (DDG 65)…the finest destroyer to sail in the Navy.  Then Commander Ferguson (he rose to the rank of Four Star before he retired) shared many leadership lessons with me his Executive Officer, but one continues to keep coming back to mind.  “Sinclair, never wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig likes it!”

Admiral Sinclair M. Harris received a lot of advice thought this career but one piece stuck with him. “Sinclair, never wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig likes it!”

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