What does a gregarious 1970s-era Red Cross Water Safety instructor and a US Army Colonel tasked with reversing the reputation of a notorious Afghani prison have in common?
One good soldier.
Meet John Garrity or as he is known away from Prince Edward Island, US Army Colonel (Ret’d.) John Garrity. Born in Charlottetown to Jim and Patsy (Leightizer) Garrity, the young Garrity moved to “the Boston states” in the mid-1960s when his parents pursued careers in education.
Like most of us, the Garrity family experienced the constant lure of the Island and returned every summer. By the time Garrity was a teenager in the late 1970s, he eagerly ditched his two younger brothers and embarked on an independent summer of adventure in PEI.
He joined the PEI Red Cross Water Safety program as an instructor and spent the next three summers teaching kids how to swim, paddle, and identify rare and indigenous plant species in wooded areas from Red Point to Alberton.
It is a little known fact that Garrity is responsible for introducing hundreds of Island kids to the unofficial Red Cross Water Safety anthem “Your Momma Don’t Wear No Socks” and despite the accolades to follow in Garrity’s life, it’s this one that has us both in an uproar of laughter during a recent call from his home in Tennessee.
Garrity taught me “Intermediate” swimming lessons at the old “Ferry Wharf” now known as Morrison’s Beach near Georgetown. It is hard to forget him. With a larger than life personality, I can actually see him in my mind’s eye corralling kids from the top of an outhouse using a towel as a superhero cape. Anyone taught by or who taught with Garrity remembers “the American” (who wasn’t actually an American) who made his way to the Island annually to join the ranks of instructors for a six-week season teaching by day and camping at provincial parks by night.
“John Penny, Kenny McGregor, the Wilson sisters - Paula, Suzanne, and Jane, Kenny Aitken, Neil Cutcliffe.” Garrity rhymes off his Red Cross cohorts just like they were standing on the rising tide hauling buoys, boats, and canoes yesterday.
“These were my formative and impressionable years,” explains Garrity. “I will never ever forget these people and the impact they had on me.”
In fact, there is nothing he loves more than connecting with them to this day when he’s home on the Island.
“We were all incredible surf swimmers. Earning the Bronze Medallion and becoming an instructor was no easy feat,” he said.
So where has he been for 40 years?
Garrity went on to become a highly-decorated member of the US Army and now serves as Director, Protective Forces, Operations, and Training for the US Dept. of Energy in Tennessee where he is responsible for protecting special nuclear material and other national assets.
Despite Garrity’s aim of staying on the Island to attend UPEI with his Red Cross buddies, his parents had other plans: the University of Vermont was waiting. It was there that he met his wife, Pam, and before he went on to become a Distinguished Military Graduate and recipient of the General George C. Marshall Leadership Award in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program.
“I thought I would become an Army doctor,” explained Garrity. However, while posted at Ft. Carson, Colorado when Kuwait was invaded in 1990 Garrity was deployed after being promoted just before boarding a plane.
“I was put in charge of leading 180 troops before invading Iraq and then I fell in love with being a soldier.”
This was the beginning of a prestigious career he insists was born a few years earlier during a training week at Oak Acres Camp near Murray River. During a “huge and particularly rowdy” water balloon fight, Garrity was dubbed “The General” and foreshadowed his direction in the years to come.
During the next two decades, Garrity was assigned to a litany of impressive roles in the US Army. The momentum that was stirred as a Platoon Leader, 4th Military Police Company, would see him exalt to Military Assistant to the Under Secretary of the Army, Executive Officer to the Deputy Under Secretary of the Army, and Executive Officer to the Provost Marshal General of the Army at the Pentagon, Special Assistant to the Commanding General, XVIII Airborne Corps and Commander, 16th Military Police Brigade (Airborne)/Director of Emergency Services, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Garrity’s last military assignment was Commander Task Force Protector and Commander, Detainee Operations, Bagram, Afghanistan during the US military Operation Enduring Freedom.
Garrity served during Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Haitian Refugee Relief, Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay, Operation Iraqi Freedom I, and Operation Enduring Freedom IX-X.
With extensive decorations for service, his most coveted is the “Canadian Parachutist Badge.”
What does he want to talk about regarding his career? His Canadian roots and how they always played front and centre. “I was always called to brief visiting Canadian officers and at one point was invited to attend Canadian Staff College.” His limited French thwarted that opportunity unfortunately. “However, I was touted as the US Army’s unofficial Ambassador for Canadians,” he said.
One of his best “Canadian memories” happened on July 1 one year when he was surprised by the playing of O Canada and the raising of the Canadian flag in his honour. Another very fond memory is when he obtained his jump master wings from a Canadian paratrooper which enabled him to wear Canadian wings. Another time he was presented with a Canadian flag in Kandahar, Afghanistan by the Canadian Forces.
Despite his life in foreign countries and now in Tennessee, PEI is always home for Garrity. When his son Matthew was born in the 1990s and military travel was never ending, PEI became the constant. Annually Garrity returns to “Patsy’s Place” on the Ferry Wharf Road.
It’s here he gets to walk the shores of the Brudenell and Cardigan Rivers with his dog, Buddy. “Digging clams is joyful,” he said. He loves to stop in to see Peter Llewellyn “who has been a wonderful friend to my son, Matthew, and down to the wharf to see what Perry Gotell is up to.” Garrity never misses Gillis’s for fries or the MacDonald’s Bakery for their “buttery rolls which are to die for.”
Garrity’s appreciation for the Island really does run tip to tip and often on a summer’s day he finds himself driving to his old Red Cross Water Safety spots.
Throughout the month of November we remember those who have served and those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. I am so grateful to Garrity for being one of those Veterans.