Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Introducing a True Hero - SFC Norris Galatas

(Janis & Norris Galatas, June, 2006)

You all may remember about a month or so ago, I flew to Meridian, Mississippi, to visit my friends, Janis & Norris Galatas, and welcome home the 155th BCT of the Mississippi National Guard. (Click HERE to read the story and see the awesome pics!) Well, I may (or may not) have mentioned that Norris was gravely injured in Iraq on April 19, 2005. (That date is very easy for me to remember, since that is our own Hometown Fallen Hero, Mike Stokely's, birthday.) Below is Janis' recounting of Norris' incredible odyssey that began with an unfortunate encounter with an IED... the below accounting was originally posted on www.Missick.com.

"I love telling Norris's story, because it is the perfect example of how soldiers go above and beyond their duties when other members of the unit are in trouble. It's long, but I've typed it a thousand times.

May 8, 2004...the 150th Combat Engineer Battalion out of Meridian Mississippi got the alert call....this Army National Guard unit was to prepare for war. SFC Grayson "Norris" Galatas went to work as the Readiness NCO preparing schedules for schools, training sessions, and duty rosters getting the unit ready to go. Our "MOB PARTY" took place on September 2, 2005 when we kissed our soldiers goodbye and good luck as they traveled to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to Camp Shelby to train up.

Norris was actually happy to now be a Platoon Sergeant again and get rid of all the paperwork and responsibilities of a busy Readiness NCO...now he could concentrate on getting his nine men ready to do their job well. Norris had a 1LT as Squad Leader, a young man whose father Norris knew and respected when they worked together in Quitman, Mississippi. His E-6 was a young man who was determined to be "just like Galatas" and it certainly paid off when the "Sarge" got injured. His E-5 was a good friend with weighty responsibilities at home and I promised Norris I would keep in close contact with this good soldier's family to help whenever I could. The other six soldiers making up the Support Platton were all E-4's...very young, with little experience, but Norris promised their fiance's and Moms that he would take very good care of them...and at Camp Shelby he shaped and moulded them into soldiers who knew what to do and needed little or no assistance to accomplish their jobs.

When I met them at Camp Shelby, they all said he had been really hard on them, but I assured them that he was preparing them for what would come and I told each of them all one day "Galatas is an old fart and he wants to come home...if you will watch him and do what he says and do what he does, you will all come home to us...and he would never ask you to do something he wouldn't do himself". They believed me and trained hard.
It showed at Fort Irwin California when they went out there to train. His platoon performed very well and got high marks. The Colonel even told me "Galatas's men did very well, and he was very proud of them". When the troops got some leave for Christmas, we all could see the difference in them. They were soldiers. Mid-January 2005, the 155th Brigade Combat Team headed to Kuwait and Iraq.

The "Galatas Curse" was alive and well, and while Brigade landed at Camp Kalsu ( a very nice, modern FOB with porcelain toilets, showers, 2-man sleep trailers with air conditioning, and a modern dining hall with wonderful food), the 150th Combat Engineers landed at Camp Dogwood...a "rat hole" for a better word, with nothing. It is now known as "Mortaritaville" and "IED Alley". But the men in the Support Platoon rallied....when the mail and supplies didn't come to them, they went to get them. Norris didn't have to stand over them with a stick and he was so proud of them. You will have to get him to tell you some of the funny stories about Mississippi boys trying to deal with Iraqi National Guard and Helicopter pilots who "just want fuel...go ahead and fill-er-up"!...Say, where are we anyway?" LOL!

The Support Platoon's primary mission was a fuel stop. Basically all they had to do was re-fueling and fuel supply runs. But this bunch jumped right in there with the rest of HHC and dug up weapons caches and hauled them out to the detonation area and lots of times they just went into Baghdad or other places for supplies for the non-existent PX and MWR tent they built for themselves.

Norris and his E-6 were in the process of building a shelter so that they could run the air conditioner off the HEMTT's engine and at least two or three of them could sleep under air conditioning for a few hours to help re-hydrate. The shelter was going well when the IED attack occurred. Norris was just relaxing on the morning of April 19, 2005, when his Captain came over and said some Brigade guys had run over an IED with their HEMTT, and they needed help and someone to recover the heavy vehicle. Norris's E-6 had just been up all night with special duty, and his other men were scattered on other missions, so he just said "Let's go get 'em" and grabbed the nearest Cargo HEMTT.

There was a tank and a humvee ahead of him in the convoy, with the Captain in the HEMTT wrecker following and then several other vehicles behind them. The tank passed over the IED, so did the humvee, but when Norris drove the 10-ton HEMTT over it, the 155 mm artillary round exploded on the driver's side. He remembers the loud "clang" of the explosion and the "poof" of sand in his face. This truck had a piece of steel on the floorboard with sand bags over it. (Perhaps this is why his face and front side are unmarked...all his wounds were from under the seat...but that is a "whole other story"). He remembers reaching up to pull the air brakes "off" switch. He remembers lying on the ground, and riding in the Black Hawk medivac, but that is about all. The Captain who was just behind him filled in the details for me.

The truck exploded and came to an immediate stop...the front wheels blown away. Norris's passenger was ejected from the truck and hit the ground hard....he was OK...just shaken up. Norris was wearing his seat belt and had to be pulled from the truck. The medic said "Grayson, this one is your ticket home" and they stopped the bleeding on his back and flew him to the 86th Combat Support Hospital. The HEMTT was totally gutted. The nurse at the 86th spoke to me one night by phone and said "ma'am, he walked into triage and when we asked him how he felt, he just said "kind of weak" and one of the nurses asked him how he was doing and he just said "I've had better days"...so his sense of humor was intact.

When they went into surgery they discovered the severity of his injuries and gave him 55 units of blood and had to tie off a major blood supply to his pelvic region to save him. They did a bang-up great job and I am forever grateful. The shrapnel tore through his right buttock and punched all the way through into his abdomen, "nicking" intestines and colon, and severing major bloodlines and nerves along the way. The wound is about the size of a man's fist and punches all the way through his belly, passing through the vertebrae in his back and just missing his spinal chord. The other wound is in his lower back and is about the same size and depth. They had to open his belly to flush the organs and repair the colon and intestines. When he was stable, they flew him to Landsthuhl, Germany. Here is where the miracles start to show. It was certainly no co-incidence that he was driving a HEMTT rather than a Humvee, his truck had at least hillbilly armor on the floorboard, he was attended by four of our best medics, the 86th is one of the best, and when he arrived in Landstuhl, he has a friend from home whose brother lives in Landstuhl and his wife WORKS AT THE HOSPITAL! This friend's brother took a peek in to see him and told me how bad he was. This kept me grounded and focused on what I faced. When he made it stateside to Walter Reed on the night of April 24th, the Army flew me up here to be with him. I arrived on the night of April 25th. He was swollen like a toad from all the blood he received, he was heavily sedated and on a ventilator. He had tubes and hoses all over him and drains everywhere. He was white and cold and looked dead.

On the night of April 28th, through the efforts of his nurse (named "Wonder") we finally woke him up. He was combative and afraid, but he knew me. He spent 10 days in the surgical intensive care unit (SICU) and 10 days in the Intermediate Care Unit (ImCCU), underwent six surgeries to clean out dead tissue, remove a piece of intestine, and flush out his belly and then moved up to a room in the wards. He was improving every day and had several CT scans and ultrasounds to assess the damage to his nerves on his right side and trauma to his head. Things were going so well, and then during surgery number eight, he aspirated stomach bile and severely burned his lungs. Back to SICU we went. He spent four days there where he got two more units of blood and dodged a severe respiratory distress, and went back to the ward. Here again are the miracles...he has not developed pneumonia so far, he has little abcesses in his belly, (but the antibiotics are working on them), and his wounds on his back are healing on their own without plastic surgery or tissue grafts. He spent 34 days with nothing to eat or drink, only IV diets, and lost 50 pounds. Now he is beginning to take little bites of soft, bland foods and sip juices and water. If he can keep everything down and begin to eat again, he can regain his strength and start to move around.

Donald Rumsfeld came Memorial Day and presented the purple hearts to Norris and two more guys on our ward. (Now you at least have that in common that you both met him)...and he had surgery number nine on May 31st without aspirating...they are too wary now to put him totally to sleep, so he just gets "happy medicine" and they work on his back with him awake..we both like that. His organs are sewn into a mesh bag for protection and strength (he looks like a turkey about to go into the oven for Thanksgiving) and his belly is open. The nurse dresses it twice daily and it will take months for it to heal. Same with the buttock and back...they are so deep, the drains will stay for six to eight months. He still can't stand or sit up on the bed by himself, but with help, he can get into a wheelchair and go down the hall to check his e-mail."

Today, Janis emailed me this addendum:

"Sergeant First Class Grayson "Norris" Galatas is 44 years old and has been in the Mississippi Army National Guard's 150th Combat Engineer Battalion for 26 years now. He joined up in 1980 and his boss at work had to let him off work to go to his high school graduation! The Army has been good to him and he loves it. He had planned to stay in another 25 years when the IED put him in the hospital. Now he is in a Medical Holding Company at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and is awaiting more surgery and the "MEB"...(Medical Evaluation Board)'s decision whether or not he can still be a soldier in the Army National Guard. If so, then he will return to his unit in Meridian and work a desk job or if not, we will have to fight for a 100% disability check. If he stays in, he may be deployed again. He is OK with that. Norris has been a full-time soldier (AGR) for four years now. We hope he can remain in the Guard. He misses his buddies. Janis"

On August 3, approximately 16 months after his initial injury, Norris will undergo yet another grueling, lengthy surgery -- approximately 20 hours' worth. Yes, 20 hours for ONE surgery. Typically, Janis emails out "Norris Updates" regularly to the many multitudes of Norris fans out there. However, his "fan base" has become rather extensive (which is a GOOD thing!) and while they are at Walter Reed, Janis will not be able to access the email address list, which is stored on her work computer, nor will she have a heck of a lot of time online, especially in the early days following the surgery. Soooo... she has asked me to post her updates on my blog - which, of course, I certainly will. I wanted to post Norris' story, and "introduce" him to those of you out there who don't know him yet. If y'all could, please begin praying NOW in preparation for his surgery. He is due to fly on up to Walter Reed this week to prepare for surgery. (and YES, I have a friend from Soldiers' Angels on alert: she is graciously taking Aug. 3 off from work, to specifically sit with Janis during Norris' surgery).

Stay tuned for details in the days and weeks to follow...

It was a FABULOUSLY HUGE honor to meet Janis & Norris in June. They are two of the most awesome people in the world and I love them both dearly!!!!!!!!!!! Thanks, too, to PJ DeGross and Chris Missick for starting "Web of Support" last year -- without which, I never would have had the chance to meet these two heroes, Janis & Norris. :)


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