Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes launched what may become a new Veterans Day tradition in Loudoun on Friday night.
Veterans and supporters gathered at the National Conference Center for an inspirational program that helped raise money for the Leesburg-based organization’s mission of helping to rebuild the lives of severely wounded veterans.
Among the highlights of the evening were presentations by veterans wounded in combat.
The keynote speaker was Staff Sargent Shilo Harris, who at age 27, enlisted in the Army following the 9/11 attacks. He was severely burned in 2007 when an improvised explosive device hit his Humvee in a convoy traveling in the Sunni Triangle south of Baghdad. Harris was placed in a medically induced coma for 48 days and spent nearly three years in the burn unit of Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX.
He wrote about his life, war experience and recovery in “Steel Will: My Journey through Hell to Become the Man I Was Meant to Be.”
“We have heroes all around this room tonight. My story is just one of many,” Harris said.
It was during his second tour in Iraq when his unit from the 10th Mountain Division was called to investigate an IED in the area. He was traveling a convoy when the Humvee erupted, blowing off three of its four doors. “The entire top of the Humvee blew off and I lost three solders. I lost three brothers. I lost three friends.”
Harris said that veterans get called a lot of things, including heroes. “I think that everybody in this room would agree with this, regardless of what we’re called, the men and women who give everything for this nation, they’re the true heroes.”
After he was pulled from the vehicle and regained consciousness, Harris recalled beginning to give orders to the other soldiers before realizing he was on fire and his melting body armor was dripping down his legs. He learned the extent of his injuries after seeing his reflection in his roommate’s glasses.
“I could see that my face was charred black. My nose was gone. My ears were gone. My hair was gone. I had blood running out of my nose and mouth and eyes,” Harris said. “I remember praying, ‘Lord, please don’t let that be me.’”
He was loaded into a medivac helicopter and his long road to recovery began.
“Every journey begins with a step. In my case it began with three steps,” Harris said of the rehabilitation that began when he was revived from the coma. “I had three little shuffles and I laid back down in bed completely wiped out.” He didn’t know how he could get better.
“One day it just clicked,” Harris said. “All of a sudden I realized I can’t have a pity party. I can’t rely on those people to do everything for me. I turned that pity party into a mission statement: Yes, Shilo, how are we going to get through this?”
He began pushing more, putting one foot in front of the other, walking a few more steps each day.
Among his advice for others is to set smart goals, surround yourself with a good team, stay positive, and know who you are. “If you don’t know who you and if you don’t know where you’re going, how can you be successful? How can you get through the next day?”
Another speaker, Sgt. Matthew Pennington, lost a leg when an improvised explosive device detonated under his vehicle. “I’m here today and that spells victory. The will to move forward—that is victory in this war,” Pennington said. “This war is a war of psychological manipulation facing people who don’t even have the fortitude to face you to your face and have to use weaponry that is hidden and deceitful. That’s what they think tough is; I don’t think so.”
Retired Marine Corporal Donny Daughenbaugh had his jaw shattered by an AK-47 round while conducting vehicle searches during a night patrol. Twelve years later, he still carries that bullet, which lodged too close to nerves to remove. Today, he works with the coalition as an assistant vice president and a national spokesman.
The coalition works to support troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan—helping to pay utility bills, buy groceries, and find work. Money raised from Friday’s dinner will be used for that work.
Learn more about the coalition at saluteheroes.org.