Behind the Scars: Shilo Harris
His voice is a hard southern drawl from places in Texas where life is like a country song. It would easy to describe him as a cowboy, with all-American values and blood that runs red-white and blue. But there is so much more to Shilo Harris than where he's from, and the lyrics of a song can't begin to hold the weight of his experiences.
"I had this soldier in my platoon when I was over there," he tells me. "Young kid, didn't know any better. We'd be out on patrol, and it was against regulations but we'd give the kids stuff. They had nothing. You'd see kids wearing the same clothes everyday, dirty from head to toe. We weren't supposed to give them things, but how do you not? They'd sooner take pencils and paper from us than dolls or toys, because they could practice in school with the pencils and paper. This soldier of mine, he'd go and pick on these kids, these Iraqi kids. And I'd tell him stop that, this is the next generation of Iraqis, Muslims. We want these kids to like us."
Shilo served two tours in Iraq as a Calvary Scout. His primary mission as he describes it was to clear routes and provide community support. He talks about his fellow soldiers as if they were members of his family, my brothers he calls them. He wryly describes a particular Sgt. Major as a tough love grandfather, who earned his respect by pushing Shilo to be a better soldier. Just before sustaining his injuries Shilo was transferred to a new unit to replace an NCO that was killed in the line of duty. It was a career advancing move that forced him to mature rather quickly. Taking a fatherly approach to the challenge Shilo weighed the needs of the Army against the welfare of his new troops.
"Being the new guy and coming over to replace these brothers who had been injured or killed," Shilo confides. "was very hard for me. I had to be very flexible and understanding. I led them through a couple of engagements and earned their respect. But I had to decide early on if the disrespect was appropriate or not because I had a few guys who were just outright disrespectful."
February 19th of 2007 was a day filled with mishaps. A new Lieutenant was put in charge of the mission, the radios weren't working correctly, and a civilian had called in an IED for investigation. The route leading to the suspicious IED was known for being dangerous to the point that walking was safer than driving through it. But because of the urgency of the mission the choice was made to drive the route. Shilo had just taken command of a vehicle in charge of the five men who occupied it- a driver, a gunner, two dismounted soldiers and himself. When the well hidden IED exploded just behind the driver's seat Shilo believes the Army lost five good soldiers that day. Shilo and his driver survived beyond expectation with injuries so severe no one believed it possible. Both dismounts and the gunner died that day in Iraq- and there were days when Shilo admits he wishes it had been him as well. He describes his injuries and the surgeries to repair what was left behind as too numerous to remember. He recently looked in a mirror and laughingly asked his wife- "So honey, what's it like being married to Frankenstein?"
He laughs now about his journey toward recovery, a journey that has taken three years of his new life. He describes the whole process as a grieving process that seems to go in phases. There is the physical phase, he tells me, where you're celebrating every physical milestone as an accomplishment and that's empowering. Then there is the phase where the physical just ends, you either learn to cope with what you can't do or find a different way of doing it. And in this phase he admits is where the depression can easily take hold. He describes to me a phase that he calls the family phase, where he's no longer the center of attention and he can focus on the effects his injuries have had on his family. As he describes it his family set aside their own emotions to get him through the process of recovery.
"I've had several days when I thought I couldn't go on, that I shouldn't go on," he admits easily. "Because of my family I went on. Then there is a phase where you're dealing with your family- the family is going; 'Whew- we're in the clear, we got you well, now it's our turn.' So now my wife is going through her recovery. I have days when I'm down and I look around. I see how we've all grown from this and the relationship we've all grown into it as a family. The worst things that have happened have only made me stronger- I say me... but it's we, my family and I."