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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

SSG Shilo Harris and the Warrior Ethos

No one can imagine or begin to understand the living hell that struck like a bolt of lightening one dark day on the sandy byways of Iraq.  An armored vehicle was blown apart, and three American soldiers lost their lives at that moment.  Although two soldiers in the driver's compartment survived, one would suffer severe burn injury to his hands, upper body and face in addition to orthopedic injury.  That man is SSG(R) Shilo Harris.  With his wife by his side, Shilo has begun to move beyond his own devastating wounds and into the realm of reaching out to other wounded warriors.  He also takes a moment now and then to speak to those of us who need to hear his story...the story of an American Soldier...without ears, the tip of his nose and some fingers...but with a big heart.

I was privileged to meet this heroic wounded warrior extraordinaire at a luncheon in San Antonio, Texas.  Shilo was speaking to a group of civilian and military doctors, nurses and hospital/medical administrators in an effort to educate us all in exactly how the warrior ethos plays out in real life.  SSG Harris has an amazing tale to tell, and he continues to share his ongoing transition to civilian life after receiving those horrific burn injuries in the IED blast in 2007.  He feels that his story is an important lesson in managing the needs of both the soldier and his family when a catastrophic injury occurs.

His story is especially inspiring to those whose mission it is to care for wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines as they defend our freedoms from far away.  Shilo and his wife Kathreyn share their experiences in the Army medical system and the lessens that those experiences bring to all of us who medically serve these very special Americans. In the days immediately following his injuries and subsequent evacuation to Germany and then to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, not everything worked for Shilo and his family as well as we would all have hoped.  But the Army Medical Department took heed of the  deficiencies and made end-roads toward developing a more compassionate and comprehensive system of wounded warrior care and family support on a global scale.

The Army Medical Department has established Warrior Transition Units to assist the individual soldiers as well as their family members in navigating the labyrinth of issues involved in recovery and integration back into civilian life.  This system is not yet seamless, but the advances since SSG Harris was injured in 2007 have been substantial.  Privately garnered funding (individual donations and corporate sponsorship) has made state-of-the-art facilities like the Center for the Intrepid a reality.  The Fisher House, an unprecedented project to shelter the families of wounded warriors as their loved one recovers over months or even years, was made possible by the generous gifts of Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher.  These facilities meet an otherwise neglected need to put a soldier's support system, his or her family, in immediate proximity to where their rehabilitation is conducted.

SSG Harris is now actively involved in the Wounded Warrior Project, a worthy cause that supports the multifaceted issues that come with catastrophic injuries of war.  SSG Harris and his comrades in arms across the world in service to this Nation embody the Warrior Ethos:
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade

In these ongoing wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, our American heroes who have sustained combat injury, whether it is visible as in an amputated leg or invisible as in traumatic brain injury (TBI), need our support now more than ever.  The advances of Army medicine on and off the battlefield have allowed many more soldiers to come back home alive, but they sometimes return with physical and psychological needs that must be met for years to come.  Their families cannot bear the burden alone, and all Americans need to step up with a helping hand to these courageous and selfless men and women of our Armed Forces.

Meanwhile, Shilo Harris goes on speaking and inspiring and opening the eyes of civilians and military alike with his unbridled enthusiasm for the Army Medical Department and the role that his doctors, nurses, corpsman and others played in his recovery and rehabilitation. He told a few anecdotes about what it's like to get along without the benefit of his God-given ears, but he was very pleased to report that he had a new set of prosthetic ones.  "So where are your ears today?" I couldn't help but inquire of him at the end of his lunchtime talk.   He said that his brand new "regular" ears needed some further adjustment to alleviate soreness on his skin, but next time, he promised to wear his "Spock" pair just for fun...who knew?

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