Natalie Harris will have a much different view of the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice president-elect Kamala Harris than she imagined a few weeks ago.
On the cusp of traveling to Washington, D.C., her military orders were cancelled due to COVID-19.
Disappointed and “bummed,” Harris is glad she at least had the opportunity.
Harris is the superintendent of the City of Metropolis wastewater department. Serving in the Navy Reserve, she was set be an usher at the inauguration — until a phone call came four days before she was to fly out.
“They reached out to me and told me there was no a need for capitol ushers because they were going to be downscaling the event due to COVID,” she said. “I was sad over it. The chief told me I was the only one who’d been honest with him” when he called with the news.
Reservists are required to do a monthly weekend drill plus an annual training lasting two weeks.
“I have it set up do get emails for different things you can apply for (the annual training). I saw those come through and I applied for those orders,” Harris said of the inauguration usher detail. “It was a lengthy process — some orders you just get them. Because of the event, these were special orders — there was an interview process where they interviewed my package.”
The package consisted of Harris’ military biography, her civilian resume, her evaluations, a fitness report and a photo. The interview process started in late August.
“They want to see what kind of people they’re putting in that position,” Harris explained. “If I haven’t done well on my evaluations or not doing what I need to for my commitment, they’re not going to pick you for that. They want to make sure you’re squared away before they put you in a position. that way that there’s no issues with credentialing.”
From the applicants, around 50 were chosen to fulfill the orders, which came in December.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Harris said of why she applied for the detail. “When I pick my orders each year, I try to go do something or go somewhere I haven’t been to just to get that experience. I want to get as much experience as I can. When I saw these orders — getting to go to the inauguration of the President of the United States, I feel like, is not an opportunity that always comes your way. I wanted that experience. And I jumped on them.”
Harris began working for the City of Metropolis as an operator at the Wastewater Treatment Plant in August 2002.
“I was down here at work, and it was right after Sept. 11 and different things. I thought, ‘I’m young, I’m healthy, I’m gonna go do my part and represent my family and see what it’s all about,’ ” Harris recalled. “I didn’t have anything tying me down and serving was something I wanted to do.”
But she didn’t just want to serve, she also wanted to be involved in the medical field.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the medical fields. It still does,” she said. “At one time, I thought about going to nursing school, but I just didn’t.”
During high school, Harris was contacted by a recruiter who talked about the Marine Corps. “I said I wanted to do medicine, but there’s no medical in the Marines — the Navy does their medical. Nobody approached me after that so I went on my own to the recruiter office and didn’t look into anything else. The rest is history.”
She took a leave of absence from the city, serving active duty Navy from July 2003 until July 2008.
“I took off and had lots of experiences, made lots of friends,” she said. “I wouldn’t change anything about doing that. I’m glad I’ve gotten to see and do a lot.”
In July 2003, she did her basic training at Great Lakes. She was an undesignated seaman at her first duty station, ACB1 (Amphibious Construction Battalion 1) in Coronado, California. While at ACB1, she did joint logistics training in Honduras. Then she went to corpsman school and graduated in August 2005 before working at the Naval hospital at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. She was deployed to the military hospital at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, from August 2006 until March 2007.
“It was still in a tent then. It was like ‘M.A.S.H.’ It was a good experience,” she recalled with a laugh.
Following her active duty, Harris came back to work for the city, eventually becoming superintendent in July 2019. She’s also a volunteer firefighter for Brookport.
But the military was in her blood, and in August 2013 she joined the Naval Reserves.
“I missed the military. The reserves was a way to still be at home” with her daughter Kynlee, who is now 12. “I wanted her to grow up at home, around family. But after being out a little while, it’s kinda hard to get it out of your blood,” said Harris, whose annual training has taken her to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, back to Camp Lejeune and to Bahrain, a country in the Persian Gulf.
Weekend drills take place in St. Louis at the Naval Operational Support Center (NOSC). She works with the medical unit that consists of doctors, corpsmen, nurses, surgeons and dentists. As LPO (leading petty officer) of the unit, she’s over the enlisted medical teams.
“When we go to drill, we run clinic. We keep the other reservists and ourselves medically ready within the NOSC — whether it’s your yearly requirements for medical or dental or pre- or post-deployment,” she said, noting close to 700 reservists belong to the NOSC. “The goal of the military is to always be ready for the needs of the Navy and mobilization or what have you. Everybody has to be up on their requirements, training, shots.”
Ranked an E6, Harris is a HM1 (hospital corpsman first class petty officer). “I plan to hopefully retire from there one of these days,” she said. “As long as I continue making rank, I hope I can stay over 20 years. I’d like to continue working my way up.”
This isn’t the first time COVID has interfered with Harris’ two-week annual training. She was supposed to go to San Diego in July 2020.
“The pandemic’s really put a stopper on some things,” she said. “It depends on who’s allowing travel and who’s not, and what their restrictions are once you get there.”
If the reservists’ orders had not been cancelled for the inauguration, “we had to pass a COVID test to leave to fly. Then once we got there, we would’ve been on restriction of movement for 14 days. On the 11th day, we’d have to COVID test again to have results on the 14th day. If we passed, we’d have a few days of training before the event. It would’ve been a week longer than typical orders because of that.”
If things had remained on track, the group would have been in Washington during last week’s Capitol riot.
“Truthfully, with all the unrest there, maybe it’s better they don’t have a lot of people out there,” she said.
Harris noted that all 50 of the selected reservists’ orders were cancelled on Wednesday night, Dec. 30, just before they were to fly out on Sunday, Jan. 3. “It’s not just that your orders are cancelled, everybody has a different story at home — jobs, families, pets — that you’ve made arrangements for. There’s more affected than just the service member.
“Maybe I’ll try again in four years,” she said. “Maybe I can get on the list again.”