Beating the odds: 81st CS lead wheels his way to the top

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of a series that focuses on an exceptional member of Team Keesler who excels in their job despite the adversities they've faced.)

He was the victim of a mountaintop helicopter crash in Colorado while on a skiing trip with three of his friends. William "Billy" Harrison said it was a wind shear that caught the helicopter and toppled it over.

Once he awoke, Harrison instantly knew he was paralyzed. The pilot didn't make it, and it was unclear how many of his friends were alive. After what felt like forever, he and his surviving friends were finally rescued from the wreckage on the mountain.

However, that isn't the real story.

In 1985, Harrison lost control of his car on a back road, hitting a culvert and flipping the car, breaking his neck in the process. But that's a far less interesting story than a helicopter crash, Harrison commented.

Harrison, 81st Communications Squadron focal point lead, gets the job done with years of experience, a lighthearted attitude and an endless amount of jokes and stories.

"One time I was in the hospital for an operation, and the nurses asked me how I became quadriplegic," Harrison said. "I told them that story, and I got to the point where I tell them I'm just kidding it was a car wreck, and the anesthesiologist put me out."

The nursing staff had to find out the next day when they stopped by his room for a visit, and the news came as quite a surprise, Harrison remembered.

"It's a better story than a car wreck, you know?" he said with a smile.

"I had just paid my car off, so that's probably why I wrecked it," said Harrison. "I had my Don Johnson jacket from Miami Vice on, and the EMTs wanted to cut it off. I was saying 'No, please don't!' and joking with them all the way to the hospital.  I guess that's just my personality."

"The EMTs ended up buying me a new jacket - it was pretty cool," he added.

Harrison, with all his stories and jokes, leads the 81st CS focal point, which is in charge of maintaining the efficiency of the base network.

"Something's always happening," he said. "It's like working at McDonald's during rush hour, all the time. I used to be able to look at my sports and CNN in my old job, but since I've been here, I haven't done that once. I love it."

The focal point is responsible for anything communications related -- delegating Enterprise Service Desk tickets, doing network and hardware repairs, recognizing vulnerabilities, and more.

Working at Keesler since 1995, Harrison started out as a network administrator in the 81st Logistics Readiness Squadron (then the 81st Transportation and Supply Squadrons). His degree in computer information systems and on-the-job experience allowed him to move to the 81st CS in 2011 and work his way up to focal point lead.

Harrison doesn't let the fact he's in a wheelchair stop him from finding the good in life, in fact it seems he has a knack for it. Whether he's at work, at home with his family, or during his six-month hospital stay for the car accident that paralyzed him, he has fun and causes some mischief along the way.

His roommate in the hospital was a roadie with a broken back, Billy remembers. They would attach coat hangers to the back of his roommate's wheelchair and the foot holds of his chair, and take the freight elevator downstairs. Their names were always being called over the hospital intercom to go back to their room, he said while laughing.

"I enjoyed my time there," he said.

Though it may be more difficult for him to accomplish simple tasks many people take for granted, Harrison never takes anything too seriously. Something as simple as dropping a piece of paper he needs is one of the most difficult things he has to deal with at work, but it never stops him, he said.

"If it's an important piece of paper, I'll just run over it back and forth with my chair until it's crumpled up enough that I can pick it up," Harrison commented.

Harrison's zest for life is often projected onto his coworkers, who don't let his physical limitations overshadow his mental capabilities.

"It's fun to work with him -- he's a guy I can joke with every day," said Rodney McGruder, 81st CS communications infrastructure chief. "He doesn't take himself too seriously. His whole attitude, his entire demeanor is upbeat every day. I don't think I've ever seen him down."

Unbeknownst to Harrison or McGruder, they attended the same elementary school within a year or two of each other, but didn't officially meet until four years ago when Harrison started working in the communications squadron.

McGruder thinks Billy is a perfect fit for the focal point.

"There is a place for him in this military workforce -- he's not a second-class citizen," said McGruder. "He's capable of doing lots of things people don't think he can do. But once you meet him, you get his attitude, his ideas. He's my wingman. He's a good guy."

Harrison attributes much of his success in life to his personality, attitude, and family support, always focusing on the positive and not letting his handicap get the better of him.

"I have a great outlook on life," he said. "I have a fantastic family. If I didn't have them, I honestly don't think I'd be in the position I'm in now. They played a huge part in the beginning stages of this."

Whether he's ensuring the network is running smoothly or joking with his coworkers, Harrison leaves a positive impact on those around him. He kids about being pulled over in his wheelchair by security forces for speeding and argues with his coworkers about which sports teams are better than others.

"People have told me because of the way I handle things, it makes them a better person that they know me," he remarked.

Harrison's disability is not who he is - it takes a back seat to his other traits.

Harrison's resiliency, perseverance and personality are his defining qualities, commented John Cobb, 81st CS client service center chief.

"You have two choices -- do something or do nothing," Harrison explained. "The truth about life is that the one thing you can control in life is you. If you want to make yourself better, you can. If you want to stay stagnant, you can. If I wanted to stay home and cry and whine and feel sorry for myself, I could, but I'm not that kind of guy."