I was born and raised in southern New Jersey and was the middle child of three. We were raised by a single mother who worked two jobs most of her life just to make ends meet. While we didn’t have the nicest house, newest cars or name-brand clothes, my mother somehow managed to put two of us through Catholic grade school, always had food on the table, gifts under the Christmas tree and for the most part we lived a good life. While it may not have been easy for us at times, what was most important is that we always, always knew we were loved.
As I got older, I watched a lot of things happen around me. I grew up around alcoholics and addicts and I just knew I didn’t what to be a part of that scene. From the time I was old enough to work, I did. I wanted to do all I could to contribute to our home but also to not have to depend on my Mom for everything. I was an average student who very easily could have done better in school but quite honestly, I was excited to be the first Harper in all of our family to ever even graduate high school.
It was very early in my senior year that I knew I didn’t have the grades nor the desire to attend college. So, I spoke with the Navy recruiter and after some convincing, my mom signed off on the paperwork and about a month later I was in the delayed entry program for Cryptology. Eleven months later, I would hop on an airplane for the first time in my life heading to Orlando, Florida for boot camp. As it turns out, the decision made at the age of 17 would be the single most important decision I ever made.
When I left for boot camp, the choice to enlist in the Navy was a means to get out of a dead-end town, get some type of a trade, an opportunity to see the world and earn some money for college. Twenty years and five months later the Navy ended up being so much more! During my time on Active Duty, I had traveled around the world three times, lived in and visited some of the most beautiful places, served above and below the seas and served with some of the most amazing, talented and patriotic Americans. During my first eight years, I had been promoted to Petty Officer First Class, earned my Enlisted Submarine Warfare pin, but most importantly, was fortunate to have been led by folks who saw the potential in me and challenged me to be “better than the rest”. By working hard and staying dedicated to not only my goals but the goals of the junior Sailors I led, a first major milestone in any Sailor’s career came to be…selection and initiation as a Chief Petty Officer.
Being The Chief is what every enlisted Sailor strives to be, and it truly is a brotherhood unlike any other. The Chief is the deckplate leader and truly runs the Navy. While I was grateful to be part of the Chief Fraternity, I had greater goals and aspired to lead at a higher level. So, I submitted for and was selected for the Navy’s Limited Duty Officer (LDO) Program that very same year. Navy LDOs represent less than 1% of the Naval Officer Corp and are selected based on technical acumen, leadership demonstrated and most importantly for their ability to apply the lessons learned and experience gained in the Enlisted ranks to the most challenging situations. Often referred to as “Mustangs”, LDOs can be a little wild but are well known for their candor when asked and for getting things done!
During my time as a Junior Officer (JO), I was afforded some great opportunities. But, perhaps the greatest opportunity and what was the most rewarding job while serving was when I was selected as the Officer-in-Charge of Submarine Special Projects. This position was by far the best job a JO could have. I had the ability to hand-pick every Sailor and Chief for the shop, had autonomy to run things as I saw fit, and had a mission set that no one else was doing or had never been done before. The team we assembled were some of the brightest minds I have ever had the opportunity to work with and most of them continue to serve as Chiefs, Warrants and Officers today!
After retiring in 2014, like any newly retired servicemember it was really about finding a job. Through a former Commanding Officer connection, I was given an opportunity with a large company on a small contract (~85 people) as the Information Technology (IT) Manager. I was brought on board to manage a team of 17 professionals who were supporting a training network mission. With government contracting being completely new to me and not being technically “heavy” on IT, I relied on my Navy roots and did what I do best…I made it my mission to take care of my people. After one year on board, I was evaluated as the number three ranked teammate on the contract, ranked only below the Program and Deputy Program Managers. That metric isn’t really a defining moment for me because I believe if you do what’s right, the rest will take care of itself. But, it plays into my story and the ultimate path leading to Invictus.
During my second year on that contract, my mother, who had been battling cancer for years at this point, had become increasingly ill and unstable. I did my best to manage the work-life balance and spent time traveling back and forth to New Jersey as often as possible. It became readily apparent to me that even though I was ranked highly on this contract and a member of the leadership team, I was simply just a number to them as I tried to prioritize and spend time with my mom.
In February 2015, my mother succumbed to her battle with cancer and we lost our matriarch. It was at that point that my wife and I decided to make a move south in an attempt to change our family “battle rhythm”. We had been running at a fast pace and felt like we were missing some things we wanted for our family. I had spoken with my Program Manager as there was a virtual instructor position open on the same contract. After a discussion, interview, and some negotiation, I was selected for the position and my wife and I began our plan to move to Florida. Unfortunately, during our months of transition, there were some issues that arose on the contract and I had all of a sudden become expendable. But, because so many wheels had been in motion and we knew deep down it was the right thing to do, two weeks after being let go, we moved to Florida as planned.
During our move, I submitted my resume and applied for as many positions as I felt I was qualified for. It was a stressful time for sure, but I never gave up hope and knew that it would somehow all work out. As I was talking to a good friend of mine, another Navy connection, he explained that he had given a copy of my resume to a golfing friend of his who had a company and thought I may be a good fit. While he wasn’t sure what positions they had available or if any at all, he thought that maybe something would work out. A couple weeks later, I was contacted via email by Mr. Jim Kelly who had asked if we could talk on the phone later that week. It was on a Thursday afternoon, after talking with Jim Kelly and Jamie Navarro for about 45 minutes or so, that I became hopeful things would work out.
After just one short call with Jim and Jamie, I was convinced that given my bad experience on my previous contract and that the company was still very small at the time, it was where I needed to be. You see, during our 45-minute call, we didn’t really spend a lot of time on my technical background or experience because they could see that on my resume. What they wanted to know is what made Chris Harper who I was and hear about the things that interested me. It was about me as a person and my goals in life and my family. That spoke volumes to me and it was apparent who they were on the phone. As we ended the call that day I clearly remember Jim saying “Chris, if you give us some time to get through a few things with this contract we will make you part of our family”. As I explained to my wife the gist of the call, all I could do was explain that if the leaders of the company represented themselves that way and that’s who they were, I knew the company would be operated the same way and I was excited.
While we had to wait through a short protest period initially, all good things come to those who wait. I received a call from Jim himself who had explained how “serendipitous” this all was and welcomed me to the company. I started with the company in November of 2016 and if I recall correctly, I was the 36th employee brought aboard. Since that time, I have represented our company as the Tampa Area Lead, serve as the Information System Security Manager (ISSM) at United States Central Command, the ESITA Cyber Security Operations Branch Contract Lead as well the Contract ISSM Task Lead. This job keeps me very busy and I am truly grateful for all of the opportunities given. I will continue to serve Invictus and be the loyal Spartan they ask me to be.
The most rewarding aspect this work presents is not the opportunity to lead, but to serve people. That’s truly the one thing I enjoyed during my time in the Navy and I wholeheartedly believe that’s an attribute I inherited from my mother. She spent her entire adult life, all the way up until six months prior to her passing, waiting tables and serving others. Sure, probably not what she wanted to do her whole life, but, she enjoyed taking care of people and she was damn good at it. While in a different capacity, I too believe I thrive on service to others and really enjoy leading teams to their potential and challenging them to be their best.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give mention to one of my biggest passions and greatest opportunities to affect change. For the last 13 years, I spend a good amount of my time coaching football. This was something that sort of “fell in my lap”. While deployed, my wife volunteered me to be an assistant for the organization my son would join that fall. So, as with all things, I jumped in and have been coaching ever since. Football presents the most unique opportunity to teach young men not only about the X’s and O’s but also life lessons with the hopes of making them better men and positive contributors in our future society. I’m currently honored to serve as the Head Coach of our Junior Varsity High School team and as an Offensive Assistant on the Varsity team.
As with all things, a man’s successes are not that of his own. I have been very blessed and fortunate to have been surrounded by leaders who challenged me, teammates who followed me and people who have loved and supported me all along the way. With all the things that I have been able to accomplish and in everything I have ever done, my greatest and most notable achievement is my family. I could have never achieved half of the things I did without the love of my amazing wife Kelly of 22 years, daughter Isabel (19) and son Ethan (17). They are the true inspiration in all I do! With all the challenge this current world presents, our family is strong and our love for one another even stronger. Yes, we’re the typically family with our own set of issues, but, at the end of the day there is no problem we cannot solve or obstacle we cannot overcome. We may not like each other all the time but “I love you” is often said in our house. Even on our bad days we’re sure to make time for a chuckle, a TV show or even just sitting in each other’s company chatting about the day.
In closing, as I look back on what I’ve achieved in life thus far, I’m proud. But, looking ahead I know there is still so much more for me to do. I often wonder If not for one tough decision of a 17-year-old kid 28 years ago to decide to join the Navy where would I be…but, I thank God I don’t have to wonder about that because I was meant to be exactly where I am.