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GMC News

Soldier Eager to Rejoin Unit

Brush with death
Wounded soldier eager to rejoin her unit

By ANNA VARELA
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/08/05

Pfc. Vanessa Harris was outside the post exchange at Baghdad\’s Camp Liberty when she heard a low humming noise.

\”It was overwhelming. You could feel it. You could hear it and you could feel it at the same time,\” said Harris, 21, a Georgia Army National Guard soldier from the Augusta area.

Pfc. Vanessa Harris got a Purple Heart for a head wound in Iraq. She has bad headaches but hopes to return to duty.

\”People started screaming \’Get down!\’ \” so she dropped to the ground and scrunched herself into a ball — just as a powerful blast blew her backward.

\”I heard the humming noise but I didn\’t hear the boom,\” Harris said. \”I thought maybe I was dead.\”

Then she realized that somebody was dragging her to safety.

Harris was quickly flown to an Army hospital in Germany, where a piece of shrapnel was removed from her head.

In a bedside ceremony there last week, Private 1st Class Harris was awarded a Purple Heart, the first Georgia soldier with the 48th Brigade Combat Team to receive the medal since the brigade began arriving in Iraq less than two weeks ago.

Guard officials said she may be the first soldier with the 48th to receive the decoration since the Korean War.

Pain in perspective

On Tuesday, Harris was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, with a closed skull fracture and a nickel-sized bald spot on her head where doctors had chopped off several braids of hair so they could remove the shrapnel.

She said she had severe headaches, but she was walking and talking and — surrounded by soldiers who have lost arms and legs in Iraq — feels lucky to be alive and intact.

On Monday night, she had finally gotten on the Internet and found out that the May 31 rocket attack killed one soldier and injured 16. She was among five 48th Brigade soldiers who were wounded, two from Georgia and three from Illinois.

Clyde Miller, 47, of Colquitt was the other wounded Georgia soldier. Guard officials say he is being treated at an Army hospital in Germany but had no additional information about his condition.

\”I just counted myself blessed because it was a very dangerous situation. Somebody lost their life in that,\” Harris said in a telephone interview Tuesday. \”That\’s somebody\’s dad, somebody\’s brother, somebody\’s son, and it could have been me.\”

Harris, a sophomore at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, had arrived in Iraq just a few days earlier as part of the largest overseas deployment of Georgia\’s citizen soldiers since World War II.

She joined the Guard as part of a scholarship program that pays her tuition and other expenses to attend the military college.

Upbeat no matter what

Col. Pat Beer, the commandant of cadets at the school, called Harris one of the \”solid, dependable performers who are doing what needs to be done, day in, day out.\”

Beer recalled the young cadet as an upbeat person, even when she had to do a 20-mile road march. \”She was singing songs, keeping everybody motivated,\” he said.

For her part, Harris said the march was supposed to be punishment — she had stayed out too late performing at a poetry slam and was tardy for roll call. \”I like to walk and I like to run so it wasn\’t really much of a punishment,\” she said with a laugh.

The Guard assigned Harris to an engineer battalion out of Augusta, where she learned to weld.

When she arrived in Kuwait a few weeks ago, Harris said, she and other welders were kept busy \”up-armoring\” vehicles with metal plates to protect them from explosives, and attaching basket-type devices to the sides to prevent rollover accidents.

She and her friends joked about how they didn\’t feel like they were really at war yet, and guessed that things would be different when they crossed the border into Iraq.

Safety was an illusion

On May 31 she took a shuttle bus from her base at Camp Stryker to shop at the PX at nearby Camp Liberty. She bought a jazz CD — \”Salt\” — and was sitting in a gazebo, waiting with other soldiers for the shuttle back to Stryker.

She wasn\’t wearing a helmet or body armor, since she was in an area where the protective equipment has not been mandatory because the location was considered relatively safe.

\”It didn\’t seem like I was in any danger,\” Harris said. \”There were a lot of people walking around. It\’s just a place where everybody was just chilling, eating and buying things.\”

Harris expects to go to her parents\’ home in Hephzibah in about a week to continue recuperating, and hopes that a medical review in a few months will allow her to return to Iraq.

\”That\’s my family over there,\” Harris said of her comrades. \”I have family here, of course, but I have a love for my battle buddies too. I feel like if I didn\’t go back I\’d be cheating, because I know that I can go back and accomplish my mission.\”

*Photo by Georgia National Guard*