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Road out of hell

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GREENSBORO — Cindy Gitter laughs and shakes her head when asked to describe Nathan Harris as a teenager.

“He was always 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” his mother says. “And he was always living on the edge.”

He liked to go fast and he liked to take risks, but he also took care of people. Those qualities would serve him well as a Marine, the only job he ever wanted.

In Afghanistan, he found out he wasn’t bulletproof. Now for the first time in his life, he has to go slowly. He has to be careful. And he has to let other people take care of him.

The 2011 documentary that captured his mission and his recovery back home was called “Hell and Back Again.” He actually made that journey twice, his mother says. In the past year, his marriage fell apart and he was virtually homeless.

The next leg of his journey is just beginning here in Greensboro, where he received a house through Purple Heart Homes for disabled veterans. And he’s determined to move forward.

“I want to make sure my life is an example,” Harris says.

• • •

The story of Sgt. Nathan Harris, 30, is both unique and universal. His experiences are his alone but reflect many of the problems that beset returning soldiers.

More than 50,000 service members have been wounded in action since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.

Harris is one of many who would not have survived in another era. His hip was shattered, his femur was broken, his femoral artery was severed, and most of the muscle tissue in his buttock and upper leg was blown away. The injury was too high for a tourniquet, so the corpsman shoved a whole box of gauze into the open wound. Harris lost 6 pints of blood in the first 20 minutes.

The blood loss left him with Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, which afflicts 253,330 returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. He also suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, which has been diagnosed in 131,341 service members since 2000.

Doctors couldn’t replace his hip because there wasn’t enough muscle tissue left to attach it to. The shattered remains of his hip joint were left to grow back together as best they could. A metal rod now goes from his hip to his knee.

His physical injuries left him dependent on painkillers, which affect mood and concentration.

“Some days I want to say, where is my son?” Gitter says. “And other days, he’s the same Nathan I always knew and loved.”

• • •

He was always likeable, she says. But he was a rowdy boy who would take any dare.

“I messed up real big or not at all,” Harris says.

He was banned from the Y in his hometown of Yadkinville after he filled his swim trunks with soap and jumped into the hot tub.

Gitter would find Nathan and his friends jumping a motorcycle off a homemade ramp. Nathan would leap off the roof and onto a trampoline to bounce his little brother off.

At the same time, he was someone who took care of others. He was recruited to join the wrestling team at age 13, after the coach saw him take on a 19-year-old who had been picking on one of his friends. He was state wrestling champ in his freshman year of high school.

With his parents’ permission, he signed up for the Marines at age 17 just before Sept. 11, 2001. It was what he had always wanted to do.

“My dad was really big into history and the military,” Harris says. “I always had a fascination with it. When I saw that insignia, I knew what that symbol meant, and that it meant something all over the world.

“I knew I wanted to earn that. And I wanted the responsibility that comes with it. You can’t get that anywhere else in the world.”

• • •

At boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., in 2002, he grew up in ways that surprised and touched his mother. “Now I realize how important the values you taught me are, and what family is,” he wrote. When he came home, he often would bring along a Marine who didn’t have a family or lived too far away to go home.

He went straight from infantry school to Camp Lejeune where he drew his gear and headed to Afghanistan. From there, it was one battle zone after another.

“We were one of the first units let loose to go after the Taliban in early 2004,” Harris says. “We found them in one week, killed 131 and captured more than 100.”

But he became frustrated with the pattern of engagement that he saw there.

“We fought and fought at incredible expense, then we’d pull out of an area, and they’d come right back,” Harris says. “We never held anything.”

After a 2005 tour in Fallujah, Iraq, he was done.

“The unit was going to Ramadi next, but we had all had a bellyful,” Harris says. He decided to leave the service, along with many in his unit. The five who went on to Ramadi never came back.

“This friend died and then this friend died, and it wasn’t just in combat,” Harris says. “There were accidents, suicides. Death don’t stop when you come home.”

Back home, Harris was restless.

“What always gave me joy was going fast,” he says. “Cars, jet skis, on my own feet.”

One day his mom was headed home when she met him coming from the other direction, going 70 miles an hour on his motorcycle. He popped a wheelie right in front of her.

“I’m not a very good civilian,” Harris says. After six months, he decided to go back.

“I told him, they’ll send you back to war,” Gitter says. “And he said, ‘I’m ready to go back tomorrow.’”

But this time, he wasn’t a gung-ho teenager. He was 26, and married to Ashley, whom he’d known since eighth grade. “I had grown up,” he says simply.

Harris requested duty as a drill or infantry instructor, but the Marines sent him to another battalion. He knew from the unit designation that he’d be going back to Afghanistan.

“But I didn’t know I’d be the very first Marine on the ground in that troop surge,” Harris says.

• • •

Operation Strike of the Sword was a high-profile mission in the summer of 2009 that would change the direction of the war in Afghanistan.

As part of the 10,000-troop surge ordered by President Barack Obama, Marines from Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, were sent behind enemy lines in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province. This time, they would take ground and hold it in a major counterinsurgency effort.

Harris led the unit dropped the farthest behind enemy lines. Filmmaker Danfung Dennis was embedded with Harris’ unit.

“We ran out of water by 3 o’clock that afternoon,” Harris says. “I gave Danfung the last bottle of water to keep him alive.”

Footage Dennis shot of Harris and his unit would be seen later in the Frontline documentary, “Obama’s War,” as well as his own film, “Hell and Back Again.” It was not the film Dennis set out to make, but all that changed when Harris was wounded the day before the unit was scheduled to leave.

It was Oct. 23, 2009, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

“I remember every detail,” Harris says.

Ambushed in an open area, they took cover in a cotton field where the crop was only about a foot tall. Harris was moving to a better position when a machine gun bullet tore through his hip.

The first thing he did was grab his leg to make sure it was still there. He was afraid he’d die if he went into shock. So he looked at the clouds, concentrated on breathing. When several of the men stood up to check on him, he yelled at them to get down.

“They were in shock, too,” he says. “They thought I was indestructible.”

When the corpsman saw Harris’ injury, his face turned white.

“I knew it was bad,” Harris says.

• • •

When the call came, Cindy Gitter knew at least that Nathan wasn’t dead. “They don’t call if they’re dead,” she says. But she couldn’t seem to process what they were saying to her.

“It was like listening to the teacher in ‘Charlie Brown,’” she says. “Wah-wa-wah-wah. I dropped to the floor in my living room. I kept having to ask them to repeat it. All they could tell me was that his injuries were somewhere between severely wounded and life-threatening.”

The next call she got was, remarkably, from Nathan himself. Gitter’s eyes fill with tears at the memory. As soon as he was conscious enough, Nathan had somebody bring him a phone because he knew how worried she would be.

He was transferred from one field hospital to another and then to Germany. Gitter would finally see him when he was transferred to Portsmouth, Va., 10 days later.

“When they finally closed the door and it was just me and him, he burst into tears,” Gitter says.

He wasn’t worried about himself or his injuries.

“I left my men,” he sobbed. “I left them.”

Harris didn’t know if they had lived or died. And it would be some time before his unit would know for sure that he had made it. Filmmaker Dennis had left the day before Harris got wounded, and only learned when he came to film the unit homecoming that Harris was at the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth.

That was when the documentary changed focus to include Harris’ difficult recovery.

His struggles with PTSD and physical pain are difficult to watch. “Lord, give me the strength not to shoot myself,” he moans in one scene.

In another, he is overwhelmed by the crowded parking lot at Wal-Mart.

“I’d almost rather be in Afghanistan where it’s simple,” he tells Ashley.

The babble of voices from two or three different people in the car talking at once makes him put his head down and cover it with his arms. “I don’t know why it stresses me out so much,” he says.

The film cuts back to Afghanistan, where he is yelling across other voices as the unit comes under fire. “When something reminds you of that, you want to just escape it,” he says now. “Or to go back where it’s normal and comfortable and makes sense.”

In the beginning, going back was all he could think about. He gradually came to terms with the fact that he would never be combat-ready again.

But anything resembling a normal life still was frustratingly out of reach.

• • •

He doesn’t talk about the second hell very much, the one in which his marriage ended, he had to deal with “friends” who wanted his medications, and he ended up with nothing but his two beloved pit bulls.

His dogs didn’t get along with his mother’s dog, so he couldn’t stay there. By the time, he met Brian Sowers, Harris had moved five times in a month.

Sowers, a member of Greensboro’s Crescent Rotary Club, led the effort to provide a home for Harris through Purple Heart Homes of Statesville. The house was dedicated on Veterans Day.

“I could see from the start that he was a loving guy and appreciative of the opportunity being given him,” Sowers says. “Now, he is so much more upbeat and outgoing than when I first met him, because he knows he has a support system.”

But the road to recovery is a long one when you have physical disabilities, coupled with brain injury. Harris needs a cane or walker to get around. Sometimes, his leg just gives out. The TBI makes him dizzy and he has trouble remembering.

Gitter, who lives in Winston-Salem, comes to Greensboro several times a week to clean the house, monitor his medications, and help him with bills and appointments.

The Rotary Club also is helping him rebuild an independent life.

He’s gone out with club members twice this month to ring the bell for the Salvation Army. He helped serve the meal for the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club at Thanksgiving. He hopes to start volunteering soon at one of the stores.

“I’m getting there,” Harris says. “I have to keep working to get mobile enough to get a job. I want to be productive and give back, make a difference in people’s lives.”

He particularly wants to help other wounded veterans. He’s working with Sowers now to establish a second Purple Heart Home in Greensboro. He wants to set an example by continuing to improve and endure.

“People want leadership,” Harris says. “They want someone to look up to, who made it through the rough patches.”

​Contact Susan Ladd at (336) 373-7006, and follow 
@susankladd on Twitter.

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