Behind the Uniform: Maj. Harrison Bittenbender
Article by Staff Sgt. James Johnson, 58th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade Public Affairs
U.S. Army Major Harrison Bittenbender, State Partnership Program director, shares his background and culture while serving in the Maryland Army National Guard. Bittenbender grew up in Hawaii and was a member of the Junior ROTC program in high school.
“I wanted to do obstacle courses. wear boots, climb over walls and do rope bridges. I wanted to play and I had no intentions of doing military [service] afterwards.” said Bittenbender, who later in life learned that his family had served in the military since the Revolutionary War.
“9/11 was my senior year of high school. On 9/12, I told my parents that everything had changed, the world was going to be different, and I needed to serve. I felt it was my responsibility to serve,” said Bittenbender. “I know there’s not a lot of Asian representation in the military, I thought my Asian family would not be able to relate to what other American families were going through. I told my parents that I was going to drop out of school and enlist, and they said, ‘Absolutely not. That’s not what our family does.’”
Bittenbender’s JROTC instructor held a parent teacher conference where they agreed that he would join ROTC, and go into the military after he graduated college.
Alongside his other family members, all of his great uncles served in the storied 442nd Infantry Regiment, a unit once composed almost entirely of American-born Japanese and is currently the only infantry battalion in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Bittenbender commissioned as an armor officer in 2006 and joined the Maryland National Guard in 2009.“…That’s what I want, [a Stetson cowboy hat]. I want to make sure no one ever makes fun of me because I’m a bit short, and the Stetson gives me a couple of inches.”
While progressing in the MDNG, Bittenbender would accept an assignment overseas in Bosnia and Herzegovina as Maryland’s bilateral affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy.
“It was so much fun to see a direct result of how the U.S. was supporting another country in humanitarian assistance, foreign relations, and building interoperability supporting NATO,” he added.
Bittenbender is currently working with the National Guard Bureau to expand the State Partnership Program, looking at different opportunities like regional partnerships, to bring in more countries with the same number of partnerships that we do have states.
”In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the way that I was able to endear myself to members of the embassy, and the diplomatic corps, was I shared with them using food, because there’s only a handful of Asian restaurants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I think that it’s easier to build relationships with people when you share a meal with them.” said Bittenbender.
Bittenbender also has been working to grow diversity, appreciation and inclusion with his peers. He started a club called B.I.T.E Club – Bittenbender’s International Themed Eateries. Every month, he would go to a different restaurant, to learn about a cuisine that people were not comfortable with.
“We should take the time to share a little bit more, in a little more depth, into what makes each of us different. It also shows that diversity strengthens us as an organization,” Bittenbender said.
One of Bittenbender’s biggest role models is Senator Daniel Inouye, an advocate for Asian American Pacific Islanders and representative from Hawaii. In office, Inouye was an advocate for racial equality and veterans benefits. went to law school with his grandfather on the GI Bill as they both served in the military.
Bittenbender believes as a leader it is his duty to find opportunities to get people to learn about cultural diversity in order to decrease prejudices and misunderstandings.
“I’ve always loved that about the military, how diverse we are, and everyone regardless of their ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds, are able to work together,” Bittenbender said. “I’ve loved that about the Army.”