Kodiak’s National Guard armory renamed to honor Alutiiq hero

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Last week, the National Guard armory in Kodiak was renamed to honor Daniel Lee Harmon. Harmon was Alutiiq and a soldier from Woody Island, on the Kodiak archipelago. He was killed in action during the Vietnam War, and honored with three Bronze Stars, one of the highest military honors. Two were awarded with Valor – which denotes heroism in combat.

Both the United States and Alaskan flags were presented by a color guard at the beginning of the ceremony. The national and state anthems were sung to honor Harmon’s service to the country and acknowledge his Alaskan heritage; July 27, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

It was standing room only at the ceremony to commemorate him, but, at times, you could’ve heard a pin drop. The memorial was a mix of Alutiiq tradition and military honor. Attendees filed outside afterwards for a short dedication in front of the new sign that now bears Harmon’s name.

Native people have served in every armed conflict in American history. And of the 42,000 Native Americans who served in the Vietnam War, 90% of them volunteered, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, including Harmon.

Harmon was an Army Ranger, and he was killed in action in Vietnam in 1967. 

Harmon was part of the Army’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, known as LRRPs. He was assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division. Missions were dangerous – teams of about six soldiers would be gone for days at a time, trekking deep into the jungle to report on enemy movement. 

He was just days away from R&R back in the U.S. when he volunteered for his final mission. Members of his platoon say Harmon and his team had climbed atop a tank for an extraction when it got stuck in a minefield and they came under heavy fire. Harmon dragged one unconscious soldier to a nearby ditch. He was climbing back onto the tank to pull off the other when he was shot twice in the chest.

Family members lit a traditional Alutiiq oil lamp during Harmon’s ceremony. They’re usually made from rounded beach rocks and the indents are traditionally made from banging rocks together until it can hold oil from seals or other mammals with a small wick at the end, July 27, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Those were Harmon’s final moments. He was 21-years-old. 

The soldier he saved, named Ron Coon, would survive. The other, Ronald Bonert, would die in a hospital 12 days later. Coon’s son, Michael Coon, was born a couple years later and spoke at the renaming.

“If he hadn’t done those, what he did to save my father’s life, I wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t be a father, wouldn’t be a husband, I wouldn’t be a grandfather,” he said. 

Kodiak roots

Woody Island rises from the sea like a spruce-covered mound, just a skiff’s ride away from the city of Kodiak. You can see whales and snow-capped mountains from its beaches. It’s where Harmon grew up – one of the youngest of 9 children. Lisa Monroe is Harmon’s niece. She never met her uncle, but said his presence was always there growing up. 

“They all hold Danny in such high regard and he holds a special place because he was the soft-hearted one,” she said. “I mean, he was just always part of the conversation.”

Harmon’s family remember him as being creative; letters to his sister, Lee, from Vietnam, often include his doodles. (Courtesy Alutiiq Museum)

Monroe said her mother, Rayna, often talked about the family cabin on Woody Island – and her Uncle Danny. He was a skilled hunter and fisherman. Family members remember him as thoughtful, quiet and artistic. They would also talk about how he loved animals and was almost an animal whisperer. 

Oftentimes those animals would end up coming home with him. 

“One of the stories she told me quite repetitively was how he found an injured rabbit. And he had put it in a shoebox and put it under his bed and nursed it back to health,” said Harmon’s nephew, Loren Castillo, the son of another one of Harmon’s sisters, Lee.

Harmon wrote to his sister frequently from Vietnam – each letter signed in long, looping cursive from her “loving brother,” with doodles and anecdotes from the field.   

In one letter, he tells her he volunteered for a reactionary force with his brigade. 

“Being me, I volunteered,” he wrote. “I guess somebody has to do it even if it is people or guys like me.”

His niece, Monroe, said his volunteerism is something that’s never been lost on his family. 

“He volunteered for the service. He volunteered for Vietnam. He volunteered to join the LRRPs you know, and he volunteered for that last mission,” she said, “That was Danny.” 

Daniel Harmon in Vietnam; fellow soldiers remember him as being a skilled navigator and a calming presence in the field. (Courtesy Alutiiq Museum)

Harmon often has a feather tucked into his camo hat in photos from Vietnam, and a big, kiddish grin. Other soldiers called him a ghost for his abilities navigating the rugged Southeast Asian terrain. When everyone was nervous, they said, he stayed calm – skills they attributed to his upbringing in Alaska. 

Monroe said it all comes back to Woody Island. 

“I consider it part of being from the island,” she said. “It was – everybody looked out for, you know, each other.”

Harmon wasn’t the only soldier who didn’t make it back to Woody Island from Vietnam. His cousin, Fred Simeonoff was also killed in action. Their names are now engraved dozens of panels apart at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. alongside the names of nearly 60,000 others, who lost their lives in the war.

It took years of advocacy from local organizations and Native Elders in Kodiak for Harmon’s name to be memorialized at the armory.  

Harmon’s nephew, Castillo, said the renaming is significant from both a military perspective and as an Alaska Native. He says his mother was ecstatic when she heard that it would happen.

Several photos of Harmon were displayed along with his three Bronze Stars, two with Valor. Harmon’s other medals from his service include two Purple Heart medals, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign ribbon with the 1960 device, the Combat Infantry Badge, and the Marksmanship Badge with a rifle bar, July 27, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

“He was somebody that she looked up to her whole life, she feels he feels a little bit cheated, that his life was cut short,” he said. “She understands his decision, but it’s one of those sad memories. And the fact that he will live on in memory means a lot to her.” 

Harmon is buried on Woody Island, at the place his family says he hoped to one day build a house. 

Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe is the commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the commander of Alaska’s National Guard; he gave remarks during the dedication, and told the crowd gathered at the armory ceremony that the new name marked a fresh chapter for the facility.

“This place has been here since the mid 60s,” he said. “I want it to be more welcoming. I want this to be a place where the community can come.”

And a permanent place to gather, and be inspired by his story –  all together – at Danny’s house.

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