While the military has long had family legacies — and featured them prominently in Father’s Day celebrations — the Harkins’ achievements stand out. Capt. Charles Emmons, a spokesman for the brigade, said it appears to be the first time a father and son have commanded the same unit decades apart.
Patrick Harkins, 41, has led the 3rd Battalion of the 187th Infantry Regiment into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan four times since Sept. 11, 2001. His father, retired Col. Bob Harkins, led the same regiment four decades ago in Vietnam during Operation Apache Snow, more commonly known as the Battle of Hamburger Hill.
“It’s a really unique situation,” Emmons said.
The family legacy reaches back to World War II. Patrick Harkins’ grandfather, Sgt. Clyde Patrick Harkins, served with the 279th Combat Engineers and was attached to the 101st Airborne Division, which also contains the Rakkasans. He was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and later died of his injuries. Patrick Harkins’ brother, Army Lt. Col. Gregory Harkins, 43, is stationed in Italy.
Bob Harkins, 71, is proud his sons followed in his footsteps, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t worry about the pair, who requested they not serve together.
“I told them if they ever got hurt, I’d kick their butts,” Bob Harkins said. “Do I worry about them? Absolutely.”
Bob Harkins was commissioned as an Army lieutenant upon graduating from Ohio State University in 1965. He lobbied to be deployed to Vietnam because he didn’t want to wait.
“I figured I might as well get serving,” Bob Harkins said.
For Patrick Harkins, the military seemed like a natural fit after seeing his father spend decades as a soldier and “the fun side” of the Army that “looked cool as a kid,” such as seeing his dad in uniform and shooting large weapons during training exercises.
The family moved eight times — from military post to military post — by Patrick Harkins’ 18th birthday, which he saw as an adventure.
“It would be two years, and I’d be like, ‘Isn’t it time for a yard sale?’” Patrick Harkins said.
Patrick Harkins, who said he wouldn’t require his own children to join the military, said his father told him and his brother they needed to engage in some kind of public service, but it didn’t have to be the Army.
“I think it was just a natural progression,” said Patrick Harkins while sitting in his office, which is decorated with blue-and-white flags and commendations from the Rakkasans.
The unit earned its nickname from a Japanese translator after World War II who couldn’t immediately come up with the word for the airborne unit, so he called them “rakkasan,” or “falling down umbrella men.” Paratroopers drop into areas not easily accessible by land or to avoid enemy fortifications, sometimes in advance of land forces also fighting in the battle.
The Rakkasans have received multiple unit citations for their service in every war since World War II.
After the initial overseas tour, Patrick Harkins returned stateside to help run several training regimens for soldiers and worked his way up to leading the Iron Rakkasans at Fort Campbell, the sprawling military post on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line.
When Bob Harkins first found out Patrick Harkins would lead the Rakkasans into a combat zone, he was both proud and worried.
“I was very proud of him when he took them into combat,” said Bob Harkins, who observed his sons’ careers from the sidelines in retirement. “You never want to see your son go into combat, but he was ready.”
The younger Harkins’ posts around the globe have included a stint at a military adviser in northeastern Iraq near the borders with Syria and Turkey and work wit h the 25th Infantry working on rebuilding the Golden Mosque, which had been destroyed by insurgents in Samarra, Iraq.
Since then, father and son have worked together to organize reunions of the soldiers who fought at Hamburger Hill and use the Vietnam veterans to assist current soldiers in dealing with the stresses of military life and time in combat.
It’s their way of extending the military family idea to soldiers who may need someone who can relate to their experiences.
It’s a task he juggles while preparing for another deployment later this year.
“This is a proud, proud unit,” Patrick Harkins says as his father nods in agreement. “One should be proud, but one should never be satisfied. I expect more tomorrow.”