By Joseph Santoliquito
Colorado Springs, Co. (CBS) — It starts with them, the reminders that sit slightly to the right of Captain Jonathan Harmeling’s desk on the Fort Carson post. The pictures he makes sure he sees every day, of friends indelibly etched in his memory.
Lined up a glance away are shots of three West Point graduates in full dress uniform that are an omnipresent reminder of why Harmeling does what he does, why he spends what seems like exhaustive hours to make sure his guys get what they’re supposed to get and everything runs smoothly.
Harmeling is the commanding officer of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), a program instituted in 1997 that gives U.S. Army personnel a chance to compete in the Olympics, providing housing, financing, coaching and training.
For Harmeling, 27, a West Point graduate whose grandfather, Hank Harmeling, was a retired colonel and two-time prisoner of war during World War II, the drive to make sure WCAP succeeds runs much deeper.
You get the sense for Harmeling, and all those involved with WCAP, it’s for them—for three West Point buddies who didn’t come home, whose memory Harmeling holds dear: Chris Goeke, Rob Collins, and finally, Sal Corma, a South Jersey native who graduated St. Augustine’s Prep, introduced Harmeling to Philly cheesesteaks—and who died April 29, 2010 in Afghanistan at the age of 24 after waving aside 18 soldiers from an IED (improvised explosive device).
In 1948, Congress enacted Public Law 11. This set forth the principle that no outstanding athlete should be denied the opportunity to represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games and other major international sports events simply because of being in the military service. This law gives every qualified individual the opportunity to try out for national teams, and if selected, allowed to participate.
This was the start of WCAP. (Watch: Sending Soldiers to the Olympics)
Harmeling is very passionate about WCAP, which in its first summer Olympic year of 2000 helped propel local standout Dawn Burrell (Penn Wood High School, Yeadon) to reach the Sydney Games.
“This is an Olympic year and imagine some people saying, ‘You’re a soldier, you can compete later,’” Harmeling said. “We don’t want someone to lose an opportunity because they’re in uniform, serving their country. They should have as much right to compete as any other world-class athlete. The public law that was enacted in 1948 says no one can be prohibited from competing in international sports because they’re in uniform. What I’m always trying to reinforce with the WCAP team is that we’re still soldiers in the Army first.
“A lot of my guys have been deployed, and some will go and be deployed after the Olympics are over. In 2010, we had two soldiers get deployed who were on our Winter Olympic team. We’re still soldiers first and that’s our motto. But our primary goal is to give soldiers, the ones making the sacrifice, that chance to compete. You can only be in WCAP for three years. Giving these men and women a chance to compete is my mission, and WCAP’s mission is to get soldiers on the Olympic team.”
Harmeling and WCAP have done an incredible job. There are nine U.S. Army members, so far, on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team headed to London, more U.S. Army representation than on any previous U.S. Olympic team: Greco-Roman wrestlers Sergeant First Class Dremiel Byers, Specialist Justin Lester and Sergeant Spencer Mango; two boxing coaches, Staff Sergeants Charles Leverette and Joe Guzman; shooting coach Major Dave Johnson; shooter Sergeant First Class Daryl Szarenski; modern pentathlete Specialist Dennis Bowsher; and 50K race walker Staff Sergeant John Nunn, a 2004 and 2008 Olympic race walker.
Other armed forces have similar programs, but those programs, according to Harmeling, who took over the WCAP program in 2010, are not as mature. Other branches are more focused on inter-forces competition, not the ultimate goal—the Olympics.
“This is unique what we’re doing,” Harmeling said. “I don’t want to stand on their shoulders and call myself tall. My job is to go to bat for my athletes every day and trying to get soldiers on the U.S. Olympic team. The commander is always responsible for what these guys do.
“When I first got the job, I thought I’d show up, kick my feet up and watch sports all day, but it’s been very demanding. We have 13 sports in 11 locations throughout the US, with between 80-100 personnel we’re responsible for, with a lot of time working with Olympic national governing bodies. I have a three-by-five card in front of my face every day about what it takes for a soldier to make the Olympic team. It’s about letting soldiers live their dreams.”
Harmeling plans on accompanying his athletes to London next month. Then, he has bigger plans, plans on making the same sacrifice, leaving his wife and four-month old son, Weston, after London to be deployed.
“I have to get into the sandbox, and I have a few different reasons for that,” Harmeling said. “First and foremost, I’m a soldier, and in my mind, that’s game time. I want to get on the field. With Sal and everyone I know who’s been there, I consider a huge blessing. I want to go over there and serve in a combat zone. That validates my time I spent over here. I’ve been interested in deploying and have no intention of getting out. My ultimate goal is returning to West Point as an instructor.
“More importantly, I’m doing this for them. It’s not easy talking about it, but I think about them every day, Sal, Chris and Rob. They’re always going to be with me. The more we succeed, the more we make them proud. They’re the ones that made the sacrifice to make this possible. We’re doing this for our people deployed now and for them.”