October is Disability Awareness Month. It’s an opportunity to educate the public about the accomplishments of those who live with disabilities. One of those people is Shilo A. Harris, whose heroism in the face of extreme adversity is an inspirational way to celebrate the theme of this month. (You can find more of Harris’ amazing story in his podcast interview with FHE Health National Liaison Patrick Fitzgibbons. Fitzgibbons has invited Harris back for Part 2 of that conversation.)
In 2007, Harris was on his second deployment in southern Baghdad when an improvised explosive device (IED) struck his armored vehicle, killing three fellow soldiers and injuring the driver. Harris survived but sustained devastating injuries in the form of severe third burns on 35 percent of his body, the loss of his ears, the tips of his nose, and three fingers, and a fractured left collarbone and C-7 vertebrae.
In the years to come, Harris would undergo more than 75 surgeries. He was the first soldier to participate in cutting-edge regenerative stem cell research to regrow his fingers, and he later received prosthetic ears. Meanwhile, Harris also had to navigate the more hidden but equally debilitating wounds of PTSD.
Harris spoke to FHE Health in a recent interview about his journey and what it is like to live with mental and physical handicaps. He also shared some words of advice and encouragement for those who struggle with mental health issues like PTSD. Catch this rare opportunity to meet a real war hero and be inspired below.
Biggest Mental and Physical Challenges and What Helped
Q: You obviously have faced extraordinary adversity. What have been the biggest mental/physical challenges along the way, and what supports have helped you overcome these challenges?
A: I was injured in 2007 in Iraq by a roadside bomb, and my recovery has been extensive. Since then, I still face physical and mental challenges—even though I have participated in breakthrough technologies and treatments, visited centers, and gone on retreats. I was in and out of kissing death. I had renal failure twice and was on a machine. Apparently, only a small percentage of people live to tell about it, and I was on it twice. My hearing loss has caused me a lot of challenges and has started to give me some anxiety.
PTSD has probably been one of my biggest challenges. For me, PTSD has so many layers and emotional challenges. Some days you wake up, and your whole world is dark, everything just hurts, and everything you hear (whether it’s from your coworker, your family member, etc.) can set you off and cause you to react. I’ve also dealt with alcoholism and prescription drugs. With mental issues like PTSD, it’s literally a daily job to check myself each day and find the motivation to get out there and do what I’ve got to do.
Facing the Handicaps, Faith in God, and Helping Others
One reason I’ve been successful in recovery is the simple fact that I did the work. One of the biggest challenges is that a lot of people want to get better and get treatment but don’t want to really face their challenges associated with healing … I am extremely blessed, and that blessing has come from facing those mental, emotional, and spiritual challenges.
Some people have a crisis of faith because of their mental and emotional challenges. I found leaning on my faith helped me a great deal. Whatever your faith is, it’s what you believe to be true—lean into that, because most religions and faiths are there to help guide people through life and the many struggles we may face.
I also made it part of my career choice to help others address these things. Going through recovery really sucks—it really does—and is very hard. When you get to the other side, you can see that you’re so much stronger because of the injuries you faced.
Daily Life Now: What It’s Like
Q: What is daily life like now? To what extent is it impacted by mental/physical disability? Are there certain things you can’t do? Are there certain routines or habits that help you stay positive/relieve pain, discomfort, or other symptoms?
A: One of the hardest things is to walk away from people, places, or things they should not be around. An alcoholic goes to AA but then works in a bar—that could pose challenges, and it’s an easy scenario, because alcohol is everywhere. There are some legal things out there that aren’t good for you: locations, people, and hobbies that may have an opportunity to drag them back into the darkness.
I have to be a self-motivator and get up each day and work. I started a business. Staying engaged in something productive is always beneficial for me, and surrounding myself with the right people, paying attention to my family, trying to be involved, and working on myself. It’s a daily thing. I do take some days off to have fun with my buddies, too.
What Helped Recovery from PTSD
Q: What helped you find recovery from PTSD?
A: I fill my life with as much positive as I can. Even certain foods and drink can affect your emotions, so I work out, some days just eat a salad, and do intermittent fasting. One of the best things for my recovery was and still is healthy living, and your meds are also there to help you.
My wife has been a big part of my recovery—but while other people can help and contribute, you need to be willing to do the work of healthy living. My wife held me accountable for my own recovery.
I’ve adopted a survivor mentality. I’m a survivor, not a victim—and that’s the mentality you must have when you go into any of this: the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual components of daily life. Attending to each of these components is important, too. When you give up on one of them, you’re walking around as three-fourths a person.
Getting Help for PTSD and The Turning Point
Q: Many first responders are afraid to seek mental health treatment for various reasons. Was there a turning point for you?
I didn’t go to inpatient treatment for PTSD but once checked myself into the VA for a bad PTSD episode. I was worked up for three days and couldn’t shake it. Some of it was alcohol induced, after I was having a good time with friends. I immediately stopped the drinking and kept expecting to calm down but kept having dark thoughts and couldn’t shake it, so checked myself in. They gave me something that helped me sleep, and after a few days I went home, forced myself to go to the gym and started working out again, going to events, and could feel the light coming back.
It takes work checking in on yourself and being aware of your mental, physical, and emotional state at all times.
The Turning Point
Early on in my recovery in 2011-2012, I decided to retire from the military and was doing well. I was motivational speaking, working on my book, and suddenly got rear-ended by a semi-truck. The accident caused neck and back pain and reactivated some old pain. At that time, I was doing well working out and not drinking; and then that happened, and I started drinking a lot, taking pain meds, and fighting the pain.
I woke up one morning and felt like I was at the bottom of my well. I had been drinking a lot of vodka each day and traveling all over the country doing events. I felt like I was a puppet telling people how to do life but was struggling myself in a dark spot.
That morning when I woke up, I had had a bunch of drinks the night before and stayed up late, and my kids were gone, my wife was gone, and the house was empty. I was done. I remember walking to my closet and catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I didn’t recognize myself and came back and looked in the mirror. I just looked like an out-of-shape, pot-bellied old man, and my eyes were hollowed out.
I put the pistol to my head and was going to kill myself; all of a sudden I heard a voice say, “Are you done soldier?” It was my dad’s voice. I put the gun down and started crying. I started thinking, “What am I teaching my kids if I commit suicide? I am teaching my kids that life isn’t worth living and that when life gets hard you can kill yourself, etc.”
I decided at that moment that I needed to get back on track. I was still on pain medicine at the time and met a chiropractor who literally saved my life. I wasn’t sleeping, but he adjusted me and I slept so well that night. Today I maintain a holistic lifestyle that I learned through the Patriot Project and don’t take pain meds.
Last Words of Encouragement
Q: What makes your story most remarkable—and what makes you a hero—is how you chose to respond to a devastating set of circumstances. What attitudes and/or behaviors have helped you respond with fortitude to horrific circumstances?
I am disfigured on my face, have very little hair on my head and am mostly bald, and am missing my ears—with studs on my head (prosthetic ears). My lips have been rebuilt. I am not exactly a handsome man, but I have come to appreciate my facial features after many surgeries. Being vain is not a good quality, but all of us want to look our best and present ourselves in the best possible way, or a great majority of us do.
I try to wear my attitude on my face every day with a smile, because I am happy in my soul. I can see that my attitude changes how people look at me and see me.
Attitude must be a transformation from the inside to the outside. Even on my dark days, I have to remind myself I’m so blessed. I do that and try my hardest to dress nice, groom myself, present myself with a smile, and have happiness in my heart. When you think about your legacy, and what your legacy is going to be and how people are going to remember you … for me, it’s having that kind of attitude.
For more of Shilo’s inspirational story or to contact him directly, visit his website.