The following article originally appeared in the series “Tar Heel Veterans” on unc.edu.
Kenneth Rodle Harris III is a captain in the United States Army who served tours of duty in Afghanistan and South Korea. He’s also a licensed clinical social worker, a husband, and the father — and basketball coach — of two young athletes. And a Ph.D. student at UNC School of Social Work.
Harris came to Chapel Hill from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he had been assigned to a brigade of 4,500 paratroopers. North Carolina is home to more than 100,000 active-duty members. Harris was one of many military and civilian social workers providing behavioral health care and supportive services to those military members and their families across the state.
The School of Social Work has played a role in the education of these social workers at both the MSW and Ph.D. levels. Kenan Distinguished Professor Gary Bowen notes that he and a number of other faculty members at the School have long conducted research and developed evidence-based support services seeking to provide stronger formal and informal support services in the lives of military service members and their families.
Bowen says, “Ph.D. students like Captain Harris have a wealth of faculty expertise at the UNC School of Social Work in conducting research and designing support services to improve the quality of life and the physical, psychological and social well-being of military service members and their families. We are so pleased that he selected the School of Social Work for his advanced graduate work.”
‘Step into my office, and let’s talk’
“Kenny” to his friends and family, Harris is the son of a now-retired Army chaplain and his schoolteacher wife. Together, they raised three boys as the family followed Kenneth Harris II’s military career across five states, Germany and South Korea in the time it took their quiet, sports-minded eldest son to decide to study at George Mason University.
“I’m not joining the military. It’s not something I want to do,” Harris remembers telling himself in high school when his thoughts were about forging his own path. But he’s glad he kept an open mind. In college, he learned more about the Army’s ROTC and became intrigued by the prospects. Eventually, he joined George Mason’s program on a four-year scholarship.
On campus in Fairfax, Virginia, Harris found himself informally providing council to friends — often enough that he’d invite others into his dorm room and joke, “Come, step into my office and let’s talk.”
Harris graduated with a human services management degree. He and his college girlfriend, Brittany, got married. Then, he paid back his ROTC scholarship by serving in the Army.
His first deployment in 2013 was as a scout platoon leader in charge of nearly three dozen soldiers in Afghanistan.
Serving in combat and overseeing his platoon, Harris was challenged to overcome his fear. “Am I ready for this?” He remembers thinking. “I feel that at every new season,” he says now. He describes his faith as a major component that centers him during times of doubt.
Harris and his wife learned they were pregnant a week before his deployment. His son Kenny IV was born in Fort Hood, Texas, while his return flight was held up in Romania.
Back in Texas, Harris was promoted from second to first lieutenant. He and his young family built a community of friends.
His next deployment was in South Korea, with many of the same soldiers he’d served with in Afghanistan. He advanced to troop executive officer, second to the troop commander, with 120 soldiers reporting to them. Harris was put in charge of logistics and maintenance, serving as commander when his senior officer was absent.
“I knew everybody in the unit by then,” says Harris. “We functioned like a team. Everybody knew what they had to do, with a wide range of different skill sets.”
In his free time, he continued to turn to sports, running in the Gangnam Peace Marathon in Seoul. In Korea, he learned that his application to the Army’s master’s in social work program had been accepted. The Harris family headed to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas — where he and Brittany’s daughter Sadie was born — for his 14-month intensive master’s program.
In Fayetteville State University’s satellite MSW program, he studied military mental health and combatting substance issues. He finished his field placement component at a San Antonio hospital serving veterans with PTSD and co-morbidities. Next, he served a two-year internship on Schofield Barracks Army Base in Hawaii on the way to earning his clinical licensure. He rotated through family advocacy, substance abuse and intensive outpatient clinics and ended with an assignment in the embedded behavioral health clinic.
The Army paid for his studies, his field placement and his internship.
In 2019, the licensed clinical social worker joined the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg. Harris brought his prior experience to a brigade of 4,500 soldiers. He and a second clinical social worker served alongside civilian therapists and providers in a clinic until the two of them were deployed to Poland with the unit as part of an Immediate Response Force (ready to deploy anywhere within 18 hours) in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
‘I was determined to go to Carolina’
Although Harris had just been accepted to the Ph.D. program at the UNC School of Social Work, he served for several months in Poland until his early release from that duty in May 2022. He and his family resettled in North Carolina, and he began his Ph.D. coursework this fall semester.
“I was determined to go to Carolina,” he remembers. “The faculty members at the School of Social Work created time and space to provide mentorship for a potential applicant like me on a Zoom call. It was the kind of welcoming community feel I was used to in the military.”
The U.S. Army has committed to supporting Harris’ quest for a Ph.D. for three years.
He’s working with Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor Mimi Chapman and Wallace Kuralt Early Career Distinguished Associate Professor Paul Lanier to craft a course of study that will allow him to complete his dissertation and exams by the end of his third year at the School of Social Work.
“Kenny’s unique experience and perspective as a military social worker clearly fuels his passion to help professionals working with others who have endured traumatic experiences,” says Lanier. “We need to train and equip researchers like Captain Harris who focus on military social work so we can learn from them how best to support the health of our entire North Carolina military community.”
Harris’ research focus is on identifying psychosocial spiritual mechanisms that foster post-traumatic growth in ethnic minority veterans who have a history of adverse childhood experiences or trauma of some sort.
“Trauma is what drew me to mental health work overall,” he says. “The work connects me back to my time as a platoon leader, where I was exposed to the unique challenges soldiers and military families encounter.”
UNC School of Social Work Research Assistant Professor Todd Jensen works with Harris. He says, “Kenny has set himself up for success as a doctoral student in the School by bringing with him a rich dataset for use in his courses and dissertation work.” Jensen adds, “That dataset includes over 1,000 active-duty military members with anonymous information collected on sociodemographic characteristics, various indicators of well-being, sources of strengths and challenges, and other factors that might influence respondents’ wellness and mission readiness.”
Of the advanced graduate work ahead of him, Harris says simply that he is “serving the community that raised me.” He’ll take the challenges season by season, relying on his go-to resources of family, faith and an active lifestyle to help center him along the way.