Through hunting, Linwood family gives back to Army personnel
It might be thought that a highly decorated Army staff sergeant who served in two tours in Iraq would not need a boost in confidence, but a recent hunting trip in Linwood did exactly that for U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Shilo Harris.
After needing his wife’s support for about seven months before he was able to feed himself, preparing for a day’s hunt boosted Harris’ morale.
“I set up a blind last night for the first time by myself,” he said. “And I went out again this evening and that felt really good.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do something like this again, but it’s the small things that are a real confidence booster.”
Working in concert with Hunt for Heroes, an El Campo, Texas, organization that provides hunting and outdoor-related activities to men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces who have been wounded on the field of battle, Stephen and Kim Johnson of Linwood were the hosts of Harris and U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Bradley Gruetzner for six days.
After the recent death of his father, who was a veteran, Stephen Johnson had been searching for a way to give something back to veterans of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also wanted to provide the positive homecoming that some who served in Vietnam did not receive.
Harris, 33, of McCamey, Texas, joined the Army in 2002 and was injured Feb. 19, 2007, during his second tour in Iraq. He was the third in a four-vehicle convoy that was removing improvised explosive devices in southern Baghdad.
Harris’ Humvee hit an IED after the convoy received incorrect information from Iraqis about the location of explosives.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘they better give me a day off for this,’” Harris joked.
He wasn’t sure how badly he was injured until he saw the look on the face of a soldier in his convoy.
“There was a buddy of mine standing over me and the fear was in his eyes as he was looking at me,” Harris said.
Harris was transported to Germany, where he was put into a coma for 48 days so that he wouldn’t be aware of the pain from his burns. He wasn’t told until after he woke up that the blast killed the other three men in his vehicle.
He then was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where he has had numerous surgeries to reconstruct his face, and he soon will get prosthetic ears.
At the time of this interview last week, his hunting trip had been unproductive. Harris said they saw a huge buck but the site on the rifle was off so they returned home empty-handed.
However, the time spent with the Johnson family — which with three boys and one girl mirrors Harris’ family — has been the most important part of the trip.
“I take family really seriously,” Harris said. “You have to reinvent healing after such a traumatic event and not just you but your entire family. When people tell you or your family ‘thank you,’ you should see my kids light up. It puts a smile on their face and lets them know that this wasn’t done in vain.
“If I was to go home emptyhanded with no animal, I would still be happy.”
And while the Johnsons’ intention was to be on the giving end of this trip, they also have received.
“It’s been very rewarding, but it makes you realize that you’re not doing nearly enough for these people that come home, especially the wounded ones,” Kim said.
Stephen said he has made lifelong friends in Harris and Gruetzner.
“It’s been everything I thought it was going to be and more,” he said. “For us, it’s an honor just to have them here.”
Harris hopes other soldiers will get to experience the week he had with the Johnsons.
“There are soldiers that are dealing with this alone,” he said. “It gives them peace of mind knowing that they aren’t going through this alone because even though they aren’t in combat, they’re still fighting.”
For more information on hosting a veteran on a hunting or fishing trip, go to www.huntsforheroes.com.
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