by Shilo Harris, with Robin Overby Cox
Shortly after Saving Private Ryan appeared in movie theaters, I was aghast to hear that one of my co-workers had taken her then-teenage son to see it. She did it, she said, to keep him from getting any ideas that war was glamorous. But that was the ‘90’s. Then came 9/11, and wars when both civilians and soldiers die—or sometimes worse, live−without any thought of glamour, under circumstances of almost unimaginable, unremitting horror. Those are the kinds of wars Shilo Harris writes about in his memoir, Steel Will.
“This generation of soldiers grew up on video games and TV shows that glamorize violence,” he writes. “We don’t speak of pink mist with you; it represents the vapor that once was a whole soldier. Or it might be the remains of the enemy after taking a 25mm high-explosive round…Either way, a human being becomes annihilated into pink mist.”
The book’s subtitle, My Journey through Hell to Become the Man I was Meant to Be, is Harris’s theme. It’s the inside story of what his life was like after an IED explosion while on patrol in Iraq left him burned over 30 percent of his body, with broken bones, fingers lost, and almost faceless. And how, although living with still unremitting pain, with PTSD, with occasions when he comes close to suicide, he learns to find new meaning in life.
I met Harris last summer at the DFW Writers Conference. Now retired from his military career, he works as an inspirational speaker. Some conference organizer booked him, probably hoping his story would put our writerly whining about agents into a broader perspective. It did.
Once we recovered from the shock of Harris’s appearance which children at his daughter’s school likened to a Halloween costume his charm (he admits to being the class clown of his high school in tiny Coleman, Texas) and self-deprecating humor, including stories about his “Spock” artificial ears, won us over. Still, I was reluctant to crack open his memoir until recently. Would Harris’s story be too much to take? Instead, his book turned out to be one of those can’t put it down reads.
It’s full of no holds barred talk about what it’s like to have your Kevlar and ceramic plate body armor melt into your burning skin, to see the horror of your ruined face and body reflected in a comrade’s eyes, even to wake, after your supposed recovery, to your beloved wife's finding you with a half-emptied bottle of vodka between your knees (because your hands are too ruined to hold it). But beyond all, there’s the acknowledgement that grace and love and meaning still exist.
If readers find the religious faith Harris achieved through his agony too much to take, they need to get over it. His life speaks for itself. A self-admitted wild child before his marriage, fathering three children out of wedlock, he says not that he found God, but that God found him in his agony and convinced him that his life still had purpose despite all his losses.
Those losses have since included a divorce from the woman he credits with the courage to stand by him in circumstances beyond anything they imagined when they promised “for better or for worse.” He doesn’t blame her. “It’s called compassion fatigue. It happens when caregivers who give and give and give get to the bottom of their buckets.” Estimates of divorce rates in families of injured military members can run as high as 90 percent. It’s part of the price.
Harris’s book includes a glossary of military terms as well as extensive lists of resources for veterans, their families, and those willing to help them; a reading list; and brief biographies of the three comrades in Harris’s Humvee who didn’t survive the IED explosion that injured him. It’s widely available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.