Lt. Harrison is serving as SSG Assistant Unit Head in the Strategic Systems Program Office.
Walking through those doors brought back distant memories from six years before. I was a young midshipman then, eager to complete my pre-graduation physical, report to my first submarine, and really begin serving my country. This visit was different. I walked through the doors in a new and unfamiliar role- as a Casualty Assistance Officer for a traumatically wounded Navy SEAL. At the time I had no idea what that meant. Our office was asked to provide a volunteer, my travel schedule for the upcoming month was light, and I raised my hand. Walking into the hospital, I was bombarded by the usual smells and sights, countless babies and retired folks. I asked the front desk how to find Ward 5. I hopped on the elevator and five seconds later the doors opened to ordered, life-changing chaos. I was swiftly introduced to Courtney, the wife of the injured warrior. She was beyond distraught. Chris had been medically evacuated from Iraq a few hours earlier- he suffered four gunshot wounds, was missing his nose, and could not use his left arm. He had a stripe of hair missing where another bullet had grazed his scalp; he was lucky to be alive. He could not talk; he communicated via blank white paper and a roller ball pen. His mother, father, step-mother, sister, brother, and aunt rushed up to me, asking for help. Questions came like a sandstorm. “Can you find a speaker for his phone?” “How long will Chris be here?” “Will he be OK?”
I was overwhelmed but calm; I knew I could help this family. I methodically approached the diverse issues and developed corrective courses of action. I found the IT department and requested a phone with speakerphone capability. Chris could hear, but his family would read his written responses to callers. I found the Personnel Support Detachment and processed paperwork to reimburse the family for their travel expenses and future hotel stays; I made hotel arrangements, haggled with Sprint PCS regarding Courtney’s inflated cellphone bill since the tragedy, mailed letters, wrote emails, drove friends and family to the airport, bought groceries, took their children to the zoo, drew simplified travel maps of the DC area, coordinated VIP visits, and delivered meals to the family, and yet all the while, over the course of three weeks, I had not heard Chris’s voice.
The voice! The voice! I know his bank account number but not his voice! We spend hours together in a room- I talk, he writes in response. He writes about his SEAL experiences, his children, his childhood, his enlisted days, and his time as a college man. In my Acinetobachter-proof yellow gown, gloves, and surgical mask, I ask question after question. The man fascinates me, yet I have not heard his voice. I pick his brain; he continues to motivate me to serve people and our country. We discuss his hand-written warning on the door: DO NOT ENTER IF YOU COME WITH SORROW. THIS IS A PLACE OF RAPID RE-GROWTH AND JOY. I WAS INJURED PERFORMING A JOB I LOVE FOR A COUNTRY I LOVE. THANKS, THE MANAGEMENT. As we discuss the sign, Congressman Murtha arrives, followed by the Dallas Cowboy’s Cheerleaders and singer/actor Henry Rollins. America!!!
A few days later as J inject water into his lock-wired mouth, we communicate again, but this time he talks! Chris talks through his tracheotomy, causing me to shed tears. Two naval officers: one hero and one volunteer, one hard-hitting SEAL and one nerdy submariner, connected, communicating by voice. Advocating for his family, hearing his voice, seeing his children laugh around their daddy, knowing he was one centimetre from death … the voice lives on! I hear it regularly now as the voice of a friend, and there is no sound like it in the world