Delta Force Legend Gary Harrell Dies in Tennessee

February 14, 2023Carl Prine
Delta Force

Retired US Army Maj. Gen. Gary L. Harrell, a legendary Delta Force leader, will be buried on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, in Mountain View National Cemetery outside Johnson City, Tennessee. Composite by Coffee or Die.

Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell, a legendary Delta Force leader, is being remembered as a quiet professional who lived a daring life of service and sacrifice during America’s shadow wars.

The retired two-star Green Beret general died early on Valentine’s Day in Johnson City, Tennessee, following a long battle with glioblastoma brain cancer. 

He was 71 and had hunted Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, led an operation to free an American hostage from a Panamanian prison, and battled the nation’s enemies in Grenada, the Gulf War, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan during three decades of service.

“He was a strong, Christian patriot who loved his country and would’ve done anything for his country, until the day he died,” his wife, Jennifer “Jenny” Harrell, told Coffee or Die on Tuesday. “That was foremost to him. He loved his military service, every minute of it.”

Delta Force

US Army Maj. Gen. Gary L. Harrell served as an infantry and Special Forces officer, including tours in Panama, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. US Army photo.

Command Sgt. Maj. Jay F. Lovelace, the retired senior enlisted advisor at US Special Operations Command Central, lauded Harrell as a “giant among giants,” who heroically carried out some of the nation’s most daring clandestine missions without ever neglecting the welfare of his troops.

“He was loved by every person he met,” Lovelace told Coffee or Die. “It didn’t matter if it was a foreign soldier or an American soldier. He was a caring man. He kept his word on taking care of his soldiers and his Marines. He was my best friend. He was a man of honor. That’s what he was.”

Retired Master Sgt. Mark Stephens recalled serving under Harrell during Operation Gothic Serpent, a 1993 manhunt for Somali warlords that led to the pitched Battle of Mogadishu.

Severely wounded in the fight, Stephens was evacuated by plane, sharing space with four service members killed in action. Shortly after that, on Oct. 6, 1993, a mortar strike felled Harrell. The shrapnel nearly severed his legs.

“He didn’t live to be on the tongue of America’s mouth, with everyone knowing his name,” Stephens said. “But does he deserve it? Hell, yeah, he deserves it. He sacrificed everything for this country.”

Delta Force

Then-Brig. Gen. Gary Harrell visits Afghanistan alongside then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in this undated photograph. US Army photo.

Harrell overcame his wounds and served another 15 years in uniform, including leading Delta Force commandos on missions no one talks about.

“A quiet professional,” said Stephens. “He really was. What I really respected, as a commander, was when you had an issue, personal or professional. He’d listen to the people who worked for him. Could he lead from the front, and did he? Yes. He always did first what he would ask of you. But he always listened to the people around him. He trusted them and gave them all the room to be successful, and that’s a powerful lesson to learn.”

Stephens said that Harrell “was like a dad to me,” a servant leader who taught all his commissioned and enlisted leaders how to lead soldiers the right way, with honor, and quiet dignity, and valor.

“He taught us when to make the hard call. That was his biggest attribute,” Stephens told Coffee or Die. “Look at the people who surrounded him. He cultivated loyalty and people gravitated to him. He brought people from different commands together, and they inherently followed him. He took care of his people, and he gave you the respect of listening.”

Retired US Army Master Sgt. Mark Stephens, left, poses with retired Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell. Photo courtesy of Mark Stephens.

When Harrell retired from the Army in 2008 as the deputy commanding general of the US Army’s Special Operations Command, his chest was spangled with some of the nation’s highest awards for both service and combat, including the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Bronze Star Medal with a V-device for valor and two oak leaf clusters, and his Purple Heart from Somalia.

He also survived a helicopter crash in Panama and a serious flashbang grenade injury, according to his wife, Jenny.

She told Coffee or Die she met the East Tennessee boy during a sleigh ride. She was only 16, and they fell in love.

“I thought he was good looking. And he had this great personality. You couldn’t help but like him,” she said.

“He always wanted to be in the military,” she continued. “When he was in high school, he was a junior. And ROTC came to present about how to get a scholarship, which he thought sounded better than going to math class. That fascinated him. He applied, and the rest is history.”

Delta Force

Inducted into the US Special Operations Command's Commando Hall of Honor in 2022, retired US Army Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell, center, died in Johnson City, Tennessee, on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. Photo courtesy of Mark Stephens.

Harrell was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1973 through East Tennessee State’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. In 2020, he was inducted into the US Army’s ROTC Hall of Fame for his significant contributions to both the service and his country.

Harrell first led rifle and anti-tank (TOW) platoons with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, before earning his Green Beret. In early 1977 he was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), at Fort Gulick, in Panama.

He commanded a Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha team and, in 1985, was assigned as a troop commander at 1st SFOD-D at Fort Bragg, which is better known as Delta Force.

In 1989, he led the Operation Acid Gambit team that broke into Cárcel Modelo prison to rescue American spy Kurt Muse shortly before the invasion of Panama officially kicked off.

Delta Force

For nearly four decades, US Army Special Forces carried out clandestine training and operational missions with Colombian forces, including these troops serving on Operation Willing Spirit on July 11, 2006. US Army photo.

In mid-1992, he took command of Delta Force’s C Squadron and deployed to Colombia, where he spearheaded the hunt for the drug lord Escobar.

Then it was off to Somalia as a ground force commander supporting UNOSOM II. After recovering from his wounds, he was named deputy commander of Delta Force in 1995.

He later served as director of US Central Command’s Joint Security Directorate. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he formed CENTCOM’s Joint Inter-Agency Task Force, merging military, espionage, and law enforcement teams to track down the al Qaeda network.

On Nov. 25, 2001, he took command of Task Force Bowie and served as the assistant division commander for the 10th Mountain Division during Operation Anaconda, a campaign to clear Taliban and al Qaeda forces from Afghanistan’s Shai-Khowt Valley.

Delta Force

The US military's ground campaign in Afghanistan began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, with Army Special Forces waging war, sometimes on horseback, alongside irregular anti-Taliban troops. US Army photo.

The next year, Harrell led Special Operations Command Central during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

He later held key positions at NATO and US Special Operations Command.

His post-Army career included directing KASOTC — the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center — in Amman, Jordan, from 2009 to 2012.

Hours before Harrell died, the regent called to say farewell to his longtime pal.

“He considered Gary one of his close, special friends,” Jenny said.

Delta Force

A US Marine with the Maritime Raid Force, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, moves to contact during a live-fire exercise at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center in Jordan on Aug. 27, 2019. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Matthew Teutsch.

After running KASOTC, Harrell became a senior vice president at the San Diego-based Cubic Applications Inc. He wooed Stephens to join him in the special operations and intelligence division. In turn, Stephens got Harrell to join the board of the Task Force Dagger Special Operations Foundation, a Florida charity that aids wounded, ill, and injured operators, and their families.

“We get people at their worst, in many cases, and we do things that are game-changers for their families, so they can get to where they need to be.”

Stephens credited Harrell with tight oversight of the nonprofit, scrutinizing how funds were spent and making sure “it stayed lean, agile, and never became a bureaucracy.”

He also served on the board of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and chaired the Washington County Republican Party.

Delta Force

President George H.W. Bush greets troops in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Dec. 31, 1992. The humanitarian mission would grow increasingly difficult. US Navy photo.

Gary Lynn Harrell was born on June 1, 1951, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, to Henry and Louise Harrell.

He was raised in the Baptist faith alongside his brothers, Robert and Jim, and his sister, Mary.

Maj. Gen. Harrell was preceded in death by his father.

He’s survived by his wife; his mother; his siblings; his children, Andrea Burchette (and her husband, Kevin); Chad (Marcia) Harrell; Amanda (Nathan) Schwamburger; and his grandchildren, Carson Grace and Callie Faith Burchette, Rory and Finnegan Harrell, and H.T. and Hadley Schwamburger.

Delta Force

A restored World War II jeep will bear the casket of retired US Army Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell to his Tennessee grave on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. Photos courtesy of retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jay F. Lovelace.

Morris-Baker Funeral Home and Cremation Services is handling funeral arrangements, which are being finalized by Harrell’s family.

Visitation is tentatively scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Boones Creek Christian Church in Johnson City. Harrell’s funeral service begins three hours later.

A public burial with full military honors will follow Monday at 9 a.m. at Mountain Home National Cemetery near Johnson City.

A World War II jeep restored by Command Sgt. Maj. Lovelace will bear Harrell’s casket to his grave.

“He loved life. He loved people,” said Jenny. “He fought the good fight. He battled to the very end. But, unfortunately, there was no cure.”

Read Next: ‘I Just Disobeyed the Order’: The Incredible Story of Capt. Paris Davis’ Medal of Honor

Carl Prine
Carl Prine

Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

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