COLUMBUS, Ohio — The two-star general now in charge of the Ohio National Guard poked himself in the chest as he spoke about the tough new physical-fitness standards being implemented across the Army, to emphasize that it’s all about being a warrior.
"I'm 55 years old, and I expect to be one of the first soldiers out there to take the test," said Maj. Gen. John C. Harris Jr., whom Gov. Mike DeWine appointed as Ohio's adjutant general in January. "I'm not saying it will be easy, but it's necessary. ... Tactical athletes, that's what our service members have to be. We need to get focused on the war fight again."
For nearly two decades, U.S. forces have concentrated on counter-insurgency efforts and defeating ISIS. But with China and Russia emerging as global military competitors, Harris said, the Ohio National Guard must refocus.
“The physical demands of land combat are rigorous,” he said. “Retraining our forces to fight in an austere environment — living from your tank, from your rucksack — and readying our combat commanders is so important.”
Harris' goals are giving the Ohio Guard's 16,300 troops (11,300 on the Army side and 5,000 in the Air National Guard) the support they require and responsibly overseeing an annual budget of $676.6 million in federal funds and $8.5 million from the state.
The married father of three grown children acknowledges that his route toward a military career was a bit circuitous: As a saxophone player and multi-sport athlete at his high school near Cleveland, he asked the head majorette to teach him to twirl a baton so he could try out for drum major with the Ohio State University marching band. He entered college as a music-education major, and he did perform as assistant drum major in 1984 and 1985.
Being from a military family, he joined the Ohio Army National Guard to help with tuition and has worn his country's uniform for the past 38 years because, he said, he quickly fell in love with being a part of what he calls America's most critical team.
He eventually went to flight school, graduated from Officer Candidate School, earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and deployed to Kosovo.
"I don't tell the Army guys that I twirled in high school," he said with a laugh.
Easygoing and funny in casual conversation, Harris switches to full-on officer mode when speaking of the Guard's mission and its people. Finding the way to blend his two sides into his own kind of leadership is part of what makes Harris special, said longtime friend and colleague Chip Tansill.
Tansill served more than 30 years in the Ohio National Guard, part of that as Harris' chief of staff when Harris was an assistant adjutant general. Tansill left in 2015 to run the Franklin County Veterans Service Commission, and he later served as director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Affairs. Now, he's back at Harris' side as assistant quartermaster general.
The day Harris was asked to become the adjutant general, he called Tansill on his way home from work to see if his former assistant would rejoin him.
"I wouldn't have come back for anyone else," Tansill said. "John Harris is the best man I've ever known."
DeWine said Harris' experience was never in question, but the appointment to his Cabinet wasn't a given. DeWine said he consulted others before making his pick.
"I was looking for a leader with great judgment. I want those who work for me to do things differently. He thinks outside the box," DeWine said.
Plus, his commitment is admirable, the governor said. "He has a real passion and concern for his troops, the members of the Guard."
Harris said his organization is "on the right track," but he knows that challenges lie ahead.
The new physical-fitness test being developed for the Army will require longer runs and more difficult push-ups, and adds sled-drags and dead-lifts, medicine ball throws and feats from a pull-up bar.
Some worry that those standards could be more difficult for part-time citizen soldiers to achieve. Harris disagrees, and said the Guard is looking at plenty of ways to support its troops and help them stay fit.
Harris plans to ensure that the Guard remains an operational force and doesn't revert to the days when it was considered only a strategic reserve. And he must integrate women into combat and navigate the waters of whatever the highly debated policy on transgendered people who serve will finally be.
He has opinions on all those hot-button topics. But he wouldn't discuss them. He said that what he thinks doesn't matter.
"Any of those issues, I probably have 50 percent of the soldiers and airmen who feel one way, and 50 percent who feel the other way," Harris said. "And my job is to lead 100 percent of them."
He wants his troops to care about those things, and to debate and discuss them at home around the dinner table, because diversity of opinion and open dialogue is good, he said.
“But when our elected officials say ‘Move out,’ we move out. And whatever policy they enact, it is our job to execute it like it is the most beautiful idea anyone has ever had,” Harris said. “Our oath is to the Constitution, not to our opinions.”