Horseback Riding

A Soldier’s Courage

February 7, 2011

Horses kept this soldier from giving up after he was seriously injured in Iraq.

By Becky Newell for America’s Horse

Skips Nightingale, Norris, Mandymrtradition and Catch Suzie in 2004, the year before Norris was seriously injured in Iraq. Photo courtesy of Janis Galatas.

Late in April 2005, Sgt. 1st Class Grayson “Norris” Galatas, 45, was lying in the emergency room of the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, Iraq, wondering how his wife, Janis, would be able to continue to feed and care for their three American Quarter Horses – “Cinnamon,” “Ruffian” and “Mandy” – if he died from his injuries.

On April 19, 2005, the Meridian, Mississippi, soldier had been driving a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck when he crossed a buried improvised explosive device, which detonated and seriously injured Norris and one other soldier.

With horrific internal injuries – every organ was damaged except Norris’ heart – he was airlifted to the combat hospital in Baghdad.

“His buddies thought he was a goner,” Janis says, “because he basically bled out on the battlefield.”

At the hospital in Baghdad, Norris was given 55 units of blood.

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“Before they put Norris in a drug-induced coma, he talked to Capt. Corbin (his nurse) about his beloved ‘kids,’ ” says Janis, an AQHA life member. “As critical as he was, he was still talking about the horses – our kids: 20-year-old Catch Suzie (Ruffian), 19-year-old Skips Nightingale (Mandy) and her 7-year old daughter, Mandysmrtradition (Cinnamon).

“Our mares are pets,” Janis says. “I never dreamed in 1988 when I bought Ruffian and then in 1989 when we bought Mandy, that gray and buckskin would be the ‘hot colors’ for the next 20 years.”

Janis says she and Norris have ridden their horses on trails, downtown, roadsides and city streets. And, just like bragging on human kids, Janis and Norris can’t stop talking about their equine kids.

“Our trainer and farrier even rode Cinnamon across a levee to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July!” Janis says. “He said she is the smartest horse he has ever ridden.”

Once Norris was stabilized at the hospital in Baghdad, he was flown to Germany for more medical attention, then on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for still more surgery.

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“He lost 50 pounds in 30 days, had 16 surgeries and was finally able to eat on June 15, 2005,” says Janis, who spent three months at Norris’ bedside. “He had to be opened up from his crotch to his sternum to be flushed out and cleaned and drained. (His wound) stayed open for three months with a sponge on his belly and a wound vacuum.”

Janis put a picture of Norris with their mares near his hospital bed.

“He said many times that little picture kept him from giving up,” she says.

“He knew he had all of us at home depending on him. That was a lot of pressure to put on a wounded soldier, but he made it fine.”

There’s another picture that gave Norris courage. While Norris was still in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit in May 2005, country music artist and Quarter Horse owner Toby Keith made a stop by the hospital to visit the wounded troops.

“Since he couldn’t go into SICU, Toby met me in the hallway and we got a photo of us together,” Janis says. “I told him about how Norris’ horse, Mandy, just loves beer, and that is why Norris bought me Toby’s CD with ‘Beer for My Horses’ on it. I told Toby that we listen to it all the time.”

So Toby signed the photo “Toby, Beer for My Horses, Keith.”

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“That little Polaroid is a prized possession of Norris’,” Janis says. “Toby was very supportive of our troops, and they all loved it when he visited them on Ward 57.”

Norris returned home to Mississippi in late July 2005 on a 30-day convalescent leave with a skin graft over his abdomen. Shortly after he returned to Walter Reed, Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States, and even though Meridian is near the center of Mississippi, Janis was still without power and water for a week.

“I made water runs to the office where I work in Meridian to fill tubs of water to keep the horses watered and to the Air National Guard for ice and Meals Ready to Eat,” Janis says of her days after Katrina hit. “I cleaned up the yard and patched the fence.”

Meanwhile, Norris was healing and finding a lot of supportive organizations at Walter Reed to keep him busy and keep depression at bay while he waited for more surgeries.

“He learned to fly fish, and he became a mentor to the younger soldiers,” Janis says. “He helped them find out about their benefits and encouraged them to get busy with a support group instead of embracing destructive behaviors like abusing alcohol and drugs.”

In October 2008 Norris had his 20th surgery to repair damage to his colon from a staph infection.

“To look at him today, one would never know he was injured except for his cane for balance and he walks with a limp,” Janis said in 2008. “Norris is a miracle.”

As you can imagine, there isn’t a lot that Norris remembers from the early days of his injuries and hospitalization. To help him remember, Janis kept a diary of their journey and has since published it. It’s called “A Soldier’s Courage.”

“It chronicles his years recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the care and love of his wife, and the many people who have made a difference in their lives,” writes one reviewer of Janis’ book on amazon.com. “This book contains valuable advice for the military and family members, and provides insight into what happens to the soldiers and their families after they return home injured from the war.

“Janis is a down-to-earth, strong and passionate wife whose love and dedication to her husband is inspirational, as she stays by her husband’s bedside during the critical months of his recovery and, at times, goes off to battle with the military system herself when she doesn’t feel her husband is getting the quality of care he needs or to help get troops in Iraq the equipment and supplies they need.”

Norris was medically discharged in October 2009.

Because Norris has no abdominal muscles, he has given up riding horses. He and Janis plan to spoil their mares – and let their mares spoil them – for the rest of their lives.

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