SSG Shilo Harris (ret.) is our cover feature for the July/August 2016 issue of Hearing Loss Magazine! I design and photograph for this bimonthly publication of the Hearing Loss Association of American (HLAA). This issue focuses on veterans with hearing loss.
Earlier this year I mentioned to my friend-since-high school, James Williams, that we wanted to do a veteran-focused issue of the magazine and he said he could interview Shilo for us. James treated Shilo when he was at SAMC (formerly BAMC). James has been working as a physician assistant in the United States Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR) since 2003. He is currently employed as a Department of Defense civilian employee and is part of the USAISR Burn Center Physician Assistant team. Williams is responsible for the daily care of burn patients, assists with numerous surgical cases and provides long-term care to many wounded warrior burn patients. He is also active in USAISR research projects, Burn Prevention Outreach Department and has collaborated on multiple published projects.
In late April I drove down to Texas to visit my family and do some cover shoots for the magazine. James interviewed Shilo before my photography session with him. It was an honor to meet and photograph Shilo for this issue.
Special thanks to Jamie Buchhorn, Shilo’s business manager, for setting up this opportunity for us. Shilo published his memoir, Man of Steel Will, this past year. Learn more about Shilo on his website at www.shiloharris.com.
Shilo Harris: Man of Steel Will
by James Williams
I first met Sergeant Shilo Harris when he was a patient at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas. Like many of our wounded warriors SGT Harris had sustained life-threatening burn and blast injuries in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack. It has been my honor to witness Shilo’s journey from severe debilitating injuries to a successful writer and inspirational speaker.
Social media has been instrumental in keeping me in touch with many of the patients who I had the privilege to work with. In December 2015, I read a story Shilo posted about his frustration with his hearing loss during a transaction with a car rental agent. I realized that we can all benefit from his observations and daily issues with hearing loss. I recently sat down with Shilo at his home near San Antonio for a candid discussion about coping with hearing loss, his book, and his reasons for becoming an inspirational speaker.
An Unacceptable Handicap
When asked to elaborate about the car rental story, Shilo was quick to say, “It wasn’t just the one time, it is a recurring event. My hearing loss sometimes excludes me from life. If people would speak slightly slower and enunciate better, it could make a huge difference
in my understanding of what is being communicated.
“The story centers around a person intently focused on a computer screen who became angry that I could not understand them. The echoes in the room and the ambient noises all worked against me in trying to comprehend what was being said. I was treated poorly because I couldn’t hear and had to ask someone to repeat themselves.
“This is especially difficult with phone conversations. If I have a business call, I will let the caller know upfront that I have a hearing loss and have a hard time hearing on the phone.
If my public relations representative is with me I will just let her take over the conversation and authorize her to represent me so I don’t miss any key components of the discussion. Understanding a voicemail message can also be extremely difficult due to poor recording, poor enunciation and speaking too quickly.
“What I’ve noticed is that hearing loss is often treated as an unacceptable handicap to many people who hear well. Of all the disabilities I have is my hearing loss that affects me the most. I would like to bring more understanding of how people with hearing loss can feel less discriminated against. If a clerk could just look up from their computer screen to face us, speak slower, clearer, perhaps a little louder, and be patient, it would make such a difference.”
Can you explain how your hearing loss is one of the most significant issues you have to deal with?
Well, with burn injuries the skin loses its ability to regulate body temperature. There is a limit to the amount of time that I can spend in extreme temperatures, especially in the heat.
Unfortunately, I really enjoy summer the most, so it doesn’t always work out for me to be outdoors with my children unless water or water sports are involved. Since I lost my outer ears in the attack, I can only wear in-the-ear hearing aids, and they are not waterproof. The only waterproof hearing aids are the behind-the-ear style, which fit well with natural cartilage and skin, but do not fit well with the prosthetic ears I have.
When it comes to using hearing aids, there are so many different conditions and dynamics that apply. I can’t wear hearing aids at certain times, I can’t do this, I can’t do that. When flying, all I hear is a big roar. In windy conditions all I hear is wind gushing by my hearing aids. It sounds like I’m in a wind tunnel!
Regardless of my injuries, my hearing is always a factor. Even the best equipment and technology doesn’t always help in certain situations. For instance, new voices or conversations that are mumbled can be problematic. Rooms that have an echo or poor
acoustics can still pose challenges. So I, like many others with hearing loss, depend on the context of conversations, facial expressions, lipreading and body language. And those are another reason I have such a hard time on the phone.
You mentioned available technology. What has been your experience with current technology?
When I was first injured and treated at Brooke Army Medical Center, I still had remnants of outer ear cartilage that could be used to support good quality hearing aids, but that cartilage had to be used to reconstruct my nose. The only option I was left with was
in-the-canal hearing aids, and those were just not as good. I knew that the technology was out there for better hearing aids, I just had to find it.
About three years ago I attended a joint military conference where vendors who offered support services to wounded military members were represented. I came across the Siemens booth and began chatting with the exhibitors about their available technology.
I explained to them what I currently had and they said it was pretty much state-of-the-art. I agreed that they were high tech but the hearing aids just didn’t work for my
type of hearing loss. My hearing loss was not only a result of blast trauma but also likely due to ototoxicity from some of the many antibiotics that were needed to treat some of my aggressive infections. Little did I know that this was to be the beginning of a quest for
improving hearing aid technology.
One of the representatives from Siemens, Augustus Hernandez, kept in touch with me. Through mutual collaboration, two years ago I was fitted with improved hearing aids that have been nothing less than life-changing. There are new tones and ranges that I hadn’t heard before. The improvements added new dimensions to sound and voice. The hearing aids have Bluetooth capability, allowing me to receive sound from a remote transmitter. I can also change the volume and programming for different environments with a controller I wear on my shirt.
Another accessory I was given is a television audio interface, but I haven’t used that yet as I still like closed captioning. Closed captioning has been so important to me that I have transformed into a person who can retain information better when I read it than when I hear it. I even attribute part of my children’s high academic success to their exposure to closed captioning.
There have certainly been rewards for your persistence in improving available hearing aid technology. Were there any turning points in your recovery that helped you become such a resilient person?
I really think I was able to survive because I had a tough childhood. My father raised me to be tough, that’s just the way he was, and that’s the way I turned out to be. But if you’re asking about the “a-ha” moments, there have been many.
I have five children. I love my kids, and I’ve had revelations from each one of them which have helped in my recovery in so many ways.
One story that sticks with me is about my daughter when she was just five years old. We had just moved into military housing while I was still recovering from my injuries. I was going to rehabilitation and trying to improve the use of my hands. I was still pretty banged up and just really weak. I found myself throwing my own pity party, as I felt helpless while the rest of my family emptied boxes, moved furniture, and put things away. My daughter noticed my sadness and she brought over a hammer and a nail and told me to go hang something. She gave me “permission” to help by saying, “You should be okay to hang something on the wall.”
So the first thing I did when I was ready to drive the nail was skip the hammer off the head of the nail, hitting my scarred fingers. Now all this happens while I am still on blood thinners. My finger was bleeding like I had cut it off! I saw this mess and I just started to cry. My daughter came over and started to console me, saying, “Oh daddy, it’s okay. It’s not bad. Let me bandage you up.” So off my daughter went to find gauze, tape, and ointments and bandaged my finger while I just kept feeling useless, injured, and sorry
for myself. She did an excellent job.
Then she asked me if I wanted to go outside with her. I knew she was just trying to calm me down. We would often go outside to talk about things, see shapes in the clouds, and talk about heaven. Many times when watching the clouds in the sky she would ask me, “Do you think that is what heaven looks like?” I would always answer, “Well, if there is a heaven, I would want it to look just like that.” So we went outside and we talked, and I felt better. My finger stopped bleeding, the pain went away, and I realized my beautiful daughter was there to help me. I am the adult, but here is my five-year-old daughter trying to help me get over my injury.
I noticed she still looked really worried. I asked her how she felt about daddy being hurt. She tried to look happy but her built-up emotions took over as she started to cry. She said, “I was so scared daddy. I missed you and I love you, but I was so scared. I was all alone when you were sick.” She had been sent to her grandmother’s house at the time.
After she got it all out and stopped crying, I told her, “Baby, daddy is here and daddy is not going anywhere. We are going to make it through this, no matter what.” She then asked me if we could pray and I said, “Yes, why don’t you lead us?” Just five years old and she prayed for nothing but thanks—she thanked God for everything. She thanked God for me and her mother, her grandparents, aunts, uncles, everybody. She asked that the Lord watch over them and take care of them. She never asked for anything for herself. I was thinking, “Wow, she’s five years old and she’s selfless.”
She loves her family, and she hasthis great faith in the Lord and in our family. That is when I really knew we were going to be okay. That was one of those special “a-ha” moments. I think because I knew everything was going to be okay, I decided to share my journey onstage and in the book.
Speaking of your book, Steel Will: My Journey through Hell to Become the Man I Was Meant to Be, was there anything in particular that prompted you to want to share your journey?
Many of the people who knew my story told me they felt I was an inspiration and that I should let others know about it. But it was the news that a young soldier who I was with on my last deployment committed suicide that I knew I had to write the book. I wanted to save at least one life. We have lost so many military members to suicide that it has become an epidemic.
I wrote Steel Will to shed light on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how scars on
the inside can be just as bad as scars on the outside, and how I am fortunate in that everyone can see my scars. I really mean that. I know it’s both a blessing and a curse. Obviously, I wear scars on the outside, but at the same time when someone sees me they almost immediately realize, “This dude has been there.” The truth is, many of us have scars on the inside. Some of the guys I speak to are suffering quietly and alone, feeling they don’t deserve care or recognition for whatever it is that’s eating at them, simply because they have no outward scars to show for the injury.
Tell me about the day you were injured.
On February 19, 2007, I got hit by a roadside bomb that was estimated to have around 700 pounds of explosives buried in the road. The explosion tore my truck apart. Three of the four doors and the entire top of the truck were blown off. They thought I was dead so they left me in the truck, but I was able to kick myself out of it.
While I was standing there I was taking it all in—the debris, the smell, and watching everybody panicking and running around. All of a sudden I noticed that everyone just stopped and started staring at me.
I survived the first blast but I never knew there was a second one caused by an antitank ordinance we were carrying that exploded from the heat caused by the first blast. I found out about the second blast while I was doing research for the book.
When the second blast went off, everyone thought for sure I was dead. If the first one didn’t do it, the second one surely did. But there I was, still standing there. Everyone was freaking out while I was trying to bark orders like an NCO (noncommissioned officer). Someone came up to me and said “Hey, you need to lie down.”
About this time I realized I was on fire and I immediately started to take off my body armor, putting out fires on my leg and noticing much of the material that was holding my gear was in flames. I removed my ammo pouches and noticed the material around them was also on fire. Removing them probably kept me from further injury, because my ammo would have started to explode.
So that’s how I got injured. But you know, I lost three soldiers that day and that was probably the hardest part of all this. Getting blown up was the easy part, the recovery was the hard part, but knowing I lost three soldiers is the worst part.
I witnessed your recovery and was always amazed that even in very painful circumstances you never lost your sense of humor. I remember you showing up to the ward with prosthetic ears that were shaped like Mr. Spock’s.
Well, going to the prosthetics lab is always interesting—especially working with Dr. Joe Villalobos, who created some excellent prosthetic ears. One time I told him I really wanted some Spock ears, and he said, “No, you will never wear them.” He made them for me anyway, and now everyone wants to see my Spock ears. Yes, Dr. Villalobos, I take them with me everywhere and wear them often!
Early on, when I was first recovering, I would see others with far worse injuries than mine—missing legs and arms, with even more burns than I had. I thought, “Hey, this isn’t a contest.” You have to stop thinking that way and realize we all had injuries, some with scars on the outside and some with scars on the inside. But we all survived. We lived and are here to talk about it, so we should all try to make a difference, and that is where I am right now.
Wounded Warrior Shares Ultimate Survival Story in New Book, Steel Will
Staff Sergeant Shilo Harris’ Humvee hit an IED while on patrol in Iraq in February 2007. In that blast he lost his ears, part of his nose, some fingers and more than a third of the skin on his body. He also lost three of his best friends. What followed was an agonizing road to recovery, which began with nearly two months in a medically induced coma. During that time he experienced a version of hell so terrifying, the memories still haunt him today. Harris shares his inspiring story in his forthcoming memoir, Steel Will: My Journey Through Hell to Become the Man I was Meant to Be (September 1, 2014; Baker Books).
“I am a man who has lived through hell. It is hard to share this experience. The carnage. The devastation. The loss. But I will do it. Because I will always know the horrors of war,” writes Harris. “I will tell you what an explosion does to you on the outside. And I will tell you what an explosion does to you on the inside. And I will demonstrate what it means to live fearlessly, with a clear understanding of the Grace that can redeem mayhem.”
With this book I wanted to shed light on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
and how scars on the inside can be just as bad as scars on the outside,
and how I amfortunate in that everyone can see my scars.
Harris recounts his journey toward manhood, beginning with a tumultuous childhood marked by his father’s struggles with PTSD and the affects on his family. Shilo moved into his rowdy teenage and young adult years searching for meaning, full of bravado, making destructive choices. The tragedy of 9/11 prompted him to enlist in the Army and he found success as a Cavalry Scout.
On his second deployment, an IED blast left him severely wounded, killed several of his men and sent him home to a “new normal” full of hospitals, painful surgeries and skin grafts, physical therapies, and medical miracles—Harris was the first to participate in a stem cell trial treatment which successfully grew back tissue on his hand. Navigating his new life provided plenty of challenges outside of his physical battles. “The wounds I kept inside were harder to heal,” he writes, and the realities of PTSD plagued Harris daily. He relied on the patience of his family, friendships with chaplains and a desperate and budding faith in God to overcome.
Steel Will chronicles a journey of pain and suffering, but also strength, persistence, love and resiliency of the human spirit. Harris reflects on his military years and combat deployments with the wisdom of a seasoned leader of men; the book reads like a modern-day “Band of Brothers” and any military enthusiast or history buff will appreciate Harris’ retelling of his time as a soldier. In contrast, the tenderness with which he writes about his family tells a profound story.
Today, Harris shares his story with groups of veterans, wounded warriors and others around the country, and continues to be an inspiration for fellow soldiers. He is currently writing his second book, Steps for Life. For more information, visit shiloharris.com.