Book Review: “Steel Will” by Staff Sgt. (RET) Shilo Harris

Although I’ve taken pretty much a hiatus from reviews this month, when I was asked to review Steel Will, I quickly said “yes” once I realized what the book is about. The men and women of our armed forces are near and dear to my heart. I’m an Afghanistan veteran and former Army-reservist. (My contract just ended last December.) My husband is active-duty Navy, and I’m currently working for the Navy as a civilian.

When I deployed to Kandahar, my job as a photojournalist often took me “outside the wire,” meaning outside the relatively-safe base and into the Afghan communities. Through all the convoys, helo flights, and foot patrols, God kept me safe. There were a couple of times I remember being truly terrified, but for the most part I always had a peace that I wasn’t going to die or be badly hurt. Not everyone is so fortunate. And not all wounds are visible.

Steel Will is the story of Staff Sgt. (Ret.) Shilo Harris. The tagline is “My journey through hell to become the man I was meant to be.”

Harris begins his book by telling about the fateful day in Iraq when his vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device (IED). I didn’t think Harris by any means glorified the gore, but he was descriptive enough that I realized just how horrific his wounds were. I even thought, he shouldn’t be alive.

Chapter two goes back to Harris’ childhood. He describes the events that led up to his enlistment into the Army after 9/11. His father had fought in Vietnam and came back a changed man, for the worse. And back then people didn’t really understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) yet. Although Harris grew up surrounded by family strife, drugs, and alcoholism, Harris was blessed to straighten out his life and meet Kathreyn, the woman who became his wife and was responsible for introducing him to the saving grace of Jesus. It’s obvious very quickly that Harris and Katheryn have a loving relationship, and that she’s a strong woman.

Harris’ book tells about many of the men he served with. The stories are both humorous and sad. He also brings to light some of the horrors of war as well as tragic circumstances many Iraqis faced daily.

About halfway through the book, Harris describes in greater detail the day of the ambush, as well as the IED blast itself. More than a third of his body was burned. He lost his ears and several fingers. Harris had a broken back and a fractured collarbone. When his wife Kathreyn arrived at the hospital in Germany, every part of his body except for his toes was bandaged. Kathreyn was told Harris’ chances of survival were 2 percent. Harris and one other Soldier survived the explosion, but three men didn’t make it.

As Harris’ body healed, he struggled with understanding why God had spared him, and not his men. And then he was angry, angry that God had allowed this to happen to him and to his family.

Besides the men Harris served with, he describes the various wounded warriors he met while recovering. It’s incredible what these troops and their families have survived. One phrase stood out to me. Harris writes, “If you ever want to meet a hero, you need to meet my wife.” Their relationship is inspiring. In a day and age where many people focus on what makes themselves happy, Kathreyn exhibited an unusual sacrificial love for her husband.

They did have obstacles to overcome, obviously. And it wasn’t just Shilo’s healing. Kathreyn had to protect and mother Shilo for months on end; she was his nurse for much of the time. So it was difficult for them to adjust their roles back to husband and wife, and lovers.

Over time, Harris became involved in different wounded warrior organizations and programs. He was able to travel around and serve as an encouragement to other warriors, newly wounded. He’s met presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He and his family even participated in ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

I could not put this book down. There were multiple places in the book that had me choked up: the stories of those that didn’t make it, the wounded warriors, the black outs and rages, traumatic brain injuries, the PTSD… These are things that many military families face on a daily basis. I’ve witnessed fellow Soldiers, who I believe suffer from PTSD, self-medicate with alcohol rather than talk about their experiences and feelings to a friend or professional. Harris openly discusses his experiences and journey of healing during a time when many still don’t speak about theirs and don’t ask for help. But they do need help.

The book ends with several pages devoted to the Soldiers who served with Staff Sgt. Shilo Harris and died that day, Feb. 19, 2007, in Iraq. And finally, Harris and his wife have included a comprehensive list of resources to help wounded warriors.

You can find out more info about Shilo Harris at his website, as well as photos, videos, and more resources.

Note: I received a free copy of Steel Will to read and review. The opinions expressed are my own.

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Book Review: “Butterfly Stitching” by Shermin Nahid Kruse

I’ve been interested in Iran and its women since I was a little girl. You see, my mother was an exchange student there, before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 when the last Shah left for exile. I grew up with Persian art on our walls and Iranian biographies on our bookshelves. So I was excited to receive the book Butterfly Stitching by Shermin Nahid Kruse to review and will pass it on to my mother now that I’ve finished it.

 Book Review- "Butterfly Stitching" by Shermin Nahid Kruse

The author, Shermin Kruse, has been writing since she was a little girl in Iran. She’s a practicing attorney in Chicago, and, frankly, I’m impressed by her first novel. [Side note- Kruse is an intellectual property attorney, like my mom, who’s finishing up HER first novel! Interesting coincidence…Must be something in that Midwest water 😉 ]

The book tells the story of Sahar and her mother Samira. Although it’s a work of fiction, it’s “inspired by the true stories of Iranian women.” The prologue is set 2009  in the US and opens with Sahar and Samira. Part One then flashes back to 1988 and the events in Iran that led them to the States.

It’s the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), and Iran’s Morality Police beat people in the streets for wearing Western clothing and dancing. Public executions are not uncommon, and women must cover their hair and most of their body or risk beatings, imprisonment, or even death.

Samira is an artist, married to a poet. Because of the strict religious regime, their work is heavily censored, and they must keep their thoughts and actions guarded. Outwardly, they obey the laws and teach their children to do the same. But inside their little apartment, they sing, dance, and talk about the life they used to have…to an extent. Part One is told through little Sarah’s eyes. She’s 10 years old, and it becomes quickly apparent that her parents have secrets about the past.

Part Two is Samira’s story. It flashes back to her youth and her life before to the revolution. As a young, poor village girl, she was married to a wealthy but controlling man who already had one wife. Eventually the first wife’s brother comes to visit. His name is Armin, and they soon find themselves falling in love.

The third and final part of the story covers the family’s escape and journey to the US after Armin is killed. The epilogue is set in present day, 2014. At the very end, Sahar finds out a secret, the last puzzle piece of her family’s mysterious past in Iran.

I found the book fascinating and extremely well written. The prologue hooked me by alluding that their family had been destroyed in some way. I wanted to keep reading to find out how it happened.

The book deals with issues like child marriage, forbidden love, adulterous relationships, betrayal, divorce, women’s rights, and religious freedom. Kruse crafted a mesmerizing tale of familial secrets and struggles on a historical backdrop of war and religious turmoil.

If you enjoy books like A Thousand Splendid Suns and Memoirs of a Geisha, then you will like Butterfly Stitching. I highly recommend reading this book! You can find Butterfly Stitching on Amazon. Both a paperback and a Kindle edition are available.

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Book Review- “The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice” by Vanessa M. Gezari

Simon & Schuster sent me a copy of The Tender Soldier by Vanessa M. Gezari to review.

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On the day Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008, a small group of American civilians took their optimism and experience to Afghanistan, then considered America’s “good war.” They were part of the Pentagon’s controversial attempt to bring social science to the battlefield, a program, called the Human Terrain System, that is driven by the notion that you can’t win a war if you don’t understand the enemy and his culture. The field team in Afghanistan that day included an intrepid Texas blonde, a former bodyguard for Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and an ex-military intelligence sergeant who had come to Afghanistan to make peace with his troubled past. But not all goes as planned. – from The Tender Soldier by Vanessa M. Gezari

My Thoughts:

Due to my experiences as a U.S. Army public affairs specialist in Afghanistan, I’m already familiar with Human Terrain Teams and aware there is controversy surrounding them. Yet, I didn’t know the full story or understand exactly what the issues are from an anthropological view…until now.

I first heard about Paula Lloyd’s death in 2009 from the Soldiers who worked with her and her team. I could see the horror in their eyes and hear the pain in their voices. The story stuck with me these several years. I researched about Lloyd when I returned home in 2010, but I could never find much information about her. She died in service of her country, but seemed to make little impact in the media.

The Tender Soldier opens with the ill-fated story of Paula Lloyd, Don Ayala, and Clint Cooper. Gezari drew me in with this tragedy, and I wanted to know more. Why was this team there? What events led to this horrific conclusion? What happened afterwards? After the opening, the book goes back in time by a few years and discusses the different men and women whose influence led to the creation of the teams. Then Gezari goes on to recount personal experiences and conversations she shared with such teams while in Afghanistan. Annamaria Cardinalli is one such social scientist who influenced Gezari. I met Cardinalli in 2009 on Forward Operating Base Ramrod:

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Elisebet Freeburg
Human Terrain Team senior social scientist, Annamaria Cardinalli
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Elisebet Freeburg/RELEASED

This book was fascinating. It’s almost an information overload. You probably won’t sit down and read the entire book in one sitting, at least I didn’t. The characters are hard to keep track of, and there are a great deal of moving pieces. I did feel that it was organized, though; each piece of information was in its logical place, and the book flowed.

It’s easy to say this book criticizes the Army. But I think the bigger picture here is an intent to expose a serious flaw in past military and political thinking that the U.S. has tried to remedy. We pluck men and women from suburban Texas and inner city New Jersey, send them overseas, and expect them to be 18-year-old diplomats.

If you’re interested in learning more about U.S. military culture, counterinsurgency operations, the war in Afghanistan, and Human Terrain Teams, I recommend picking up a copy of The Tender Soldier. Find it here:

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