RALEIGH — Britt Harris still vividly remembers the first moment she saw her now-deceased husband, Spc. Chris Harris, a U.S. Army paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne.
“Chris and I met in Southern Pines, where we both are from, through some mutual friends,” she told NSJ in a Sept. 1 interview. “It was like one of those scenes from a movie — and I know that sounds so cheesy — where someone walks into a room and everything else kind of fades into the background, and everyone else gets really blurry and the focus is on that one person.”
That spark from their first meeting in January of 2016 quickly led to an engagement and then marriage in October of the same year.
But their time together after the wedding would be short, with Chris’s unit deploying to Afghanistan in July of 2017. Britt says Chris was excited for his mission. He was largely raised by his uncle Bruce in Florida, who had served in the military and was a father-figure to him, and Chris was inspired to follow in his footsteps.
“I actually didn’t know I was pregnant until three weeks into the deployment. I had no idea,” Britt recalled. “We weren’t trying to get pregnant. I was actually very against it. As soon as we got married, he said, ‘Let’s have a baby,’ but I was like, ‘No, not if you’re deploying; that’s not happening.’”
Britt was already reeling from the death of her grandfather a couple months earlier, who had raised her, when, on the first day of Chris’ deployment, her best friend died due to pregnancy complications. Britt spent much of that week grieving and attending services. Then two weeks later, she found out she was pregnant herself.
“I was pretty nervous; I was panicking; I was upset. I was like, ‘I told you I didn’t want to do this. I told you I didn’t want to be alone. God forbid something happens and you don’t come home and I have to raise the baby by myself.’ I was always the worrier of our relationship.”
She told Chris over FaceTime, and they talked every day for the next week — his last week of life — about their plans, about names and all the other details of starting a family. Britt said, while she was worried about the pregnancy, Chris was ecstatic.
“Chris has always wanted to be a dad. He loved kids and kids loved him and ran to him. So he was just head-in-the clouds, happy, excited to be a dad. Already picking out names. I was trying to crunch numbers and figure out what we were going to do.”
But these hopeful moments looking towards a future and a family together would be extinguished only a few short days later.
“I saw a news article go out; I got a notification on my phone,” Britt said of the day she heard of Chris’s passing. “I was really upset and I couldn’t get in touch with him. I thought I was just being crazy.”
She then went out to lunch with a friend to calm down. But then another military news site sent out a notification saying that two soldiers had died in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where Chris was stationed. Because they had been texting and video chatting constantly since discovering the pregnancy, the sudden halt to communications coming at the same time as this story made her assume the worst.
“They say the worst thing you can do is set up a routine when someone is deployed, because if it changes, you’re going to panic.” she said.
Britt’s friend and everyone at work thought she was overreacting and jumping to conclusions, but they let her take the rest of the day off.
“And I went home and called every single person I could think of. I demanded that somebody tell me that it was Chris, so I could start my grieving.”
She said nobody with the military knew, or was authorized to tell her, so she paced the house and yard “trying to convince myself that I wasn’t losing my mind. I was like, ‘I’m overreacting. Chris is going to be so embarrassed when he turns his phone on and sees how nuts I went.’ And then there was the other half of me that was like, ‘You’re not crazy. It is Chris.’”
“And then as I was standing there, a government car pulls up in my driveway. Two soldiers in their dress blues, and one of them walked up to me and said, ‘Are you the wife of Spc. Christopher Harris?’ And I don’t remember anything he said after that. I kind of just have blocked out that entire conversation and that memory.”
Chris died just two months before their one-year anniversary. Britt said the community completely rallied around her.
“It was enormous. It was overwhelming, to say the least,” she said of the support she received. “I went from being an absolute nobody in town — I mean, I had friends, but I was just a normal person — to constantly having messages on my phone, companies, organizations, people wanting to make food for me, people wanting to give me baby things, people from all over the county, the state, letters just started to pour in, cards, donations, GoFundMe’s for my pregnancy.”
Then later, Britt made a video for the gender reveal, with Chris’s unit in Afghanistan revealing the pink signifying she was to have a girl, and then she began receiving international attention. The video went viral, so she had interviews on German television and CMT’s Pickler and Ben Show, among many others. People would send notes of support and presents from around the world.
“It was bizarre, but it was definitely a comfort to not feel so alone after the most horrible, tragic event of my life,” she said of the impact of that support. “I couldn’t think that I could possibly fathom any more heartache at that point, so I was desperate for people to be there for me.”
Britt then decided to change the name they had planned, and instead went with “Christian” to honor Chris, saying she was “so desperate to find ways to tie him into the pregnancy.”
Now that Christian is 3 years old, Britt still tries to tie Chris into their lives every way she can, telling her stories and showing her pictures of “Daddy Chris.”
“She was actually born the exact same day that his unit came home from Afghanistan — St. Patrick’s Day,” Britt said. “It’s heartbreaking, and I feel like she’s not getting the same experiences as other children her age. It seems unfair. And I so desperately wish I didn’t have to take her to a cemetery to say, ‘Here’s your dad.’ I try really hard to explain it to her, and she doesn’t grasp it.”
She hopes Christian be proud of her father’s sacrifice. Britt hopes the same for the other families that have lost people on 9/11 and the 20 years of the War on Terror since — including those close to the 13 who died in the recent Kabul Airport bombing.
“I am not an emotional person. I do not cry very often, and I cried,” she said of the recent bombing. “I was so heartbroken. It brought back every single memory.”
She had many other military families reach out to her, including one mother who said her son was working that gate and hadn’t heard from him yet.
“And I cried so much for her, because I know how painful that is to sit around and wait for a notification and think that it’s for you and hope it’s not for you.”
She said one of the families of the slain lives right down the street from her in the military-heavy area around Fort Bragg.
“And once again our small community is heartbroken about another service member that has fallen, and I’m sure that I’ll be seeing them at Gold Star events,” she said. “It was supposed to be a withdrawal, not adding more names to a memorial.”
But through all the pain, Britt Harris hopes people can find peace in the fact that their loved ones passed while trying to help people achieve a better life.
“And that’s what helps me find a way to view all of this and not get upset and not get angry,” she said. “They gave their lives to a bigger and better cause, and there’s nothing ever wrong in doing the right thing.”
She said she pushes back hard on any suggestion that it was “all for nothing.”
“I feel that just because the end result was not what we had hoped for, it doesn’t negate 20 years of progress and freedom for little girls,” Britt said. “I’m obviously not excited or happy with the withdrawal and the way it was handled, though I understand that we had to leave at some point. But you can’t rip ideas out of people. They’ve experienced it; they’ve lived it; they know that this is what they want. And I’m hopeful that those people find their freedom again.”