A Soldier’s Courage

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

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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14 thoughts on “A Soldier’s Courage”

  1. I’m a Canadian but military is military and the troops are putting their lives on the line for the rest of us, regardless of where we live. To them I say THANK YOU VERY MUCH. I also own Quarter Horses. Right now I only have one mare, Wee Miss Maudy and an unregistered gelding but they are “clowns” that will continue to live the good life with me until it’s time for them to join the great herd up yonder. When life starts to get you down and everything look bleak, go talk to your Quarter Horse “kids” and listen to what they say in return. The sun will come out and the world will smile at and with you. May … west of Two Hills, Alta

  2. I am more than moved by this story of love and devotion. I wish to thank Norris for his gift to our country. I know that there are many Janis’ out there that have “stood by their man” and I thank God for the strength of these women. Our children are also our horses, dogs and cats and they are our joy and yes, our strength at times. All the best to you both, Judy

  3. MAY GOD continue to bless this family and all the other military families. It was a very touching story; yes I cried! Our troops do a job that requires them to put their lives on the line everyday…My grandfather was in WWII as were several of my great uncles, my uncle was in Korea, my step-dad was in Vietnam, my brother is currently in the army and made 1 tour to Afgan and 3 tours to Iraq, my newphew is also currently in the army and is serving a tour in Afgan right now…horses have such a healing affect and they don’t see any imperfections in their owners as other people do…I have kids and grandkids; but my horses are also my kids, & I love them as much. When Rita and Ike hit Southeast Texas; I packed up my kids, cats, dogs and horses for the long evacuation progress. God Bless all our TROOPS!

  4. I read your story with tears in my eyes. BLESS YOU FOR SERVING. Yes horses have such a great healing power. They are great for keeping people focused. I come from a long line of men who served in the service for our country. My cousin who passed away at 91 last year served in Africa in world war 2. Janis is your loyal wife and is doing a great job too. I am horseless now but make it to the horse shows and miss having one. I had mine until they both passed away. Still have my cats for comforters and still love horses even tho I am no longer able to have one.
    May God bless both of you and your kids. Plus all our troops. We have more being deployed from our 45th Infanry here. The article was in the paper this morning.

  5. I have worked at WRAMC as a contractor for almost 20yrs. God bless all the men and women who serve our country. We would not have the life we have with our horses and families if it weren’t for these brave men and women.
    My two Quarter horses and two Belgians are our children too. Whenever I have a bad day all I have to do is go to the barn and tell my kids. They understand and also let me cry in their manes if I need to. Janis keep up the good work and Sgt Norris don’t give up and always remember that you will not be forgotten. THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE TO OUR COUNTRY!!!

  6. Norris and Janis. Thank you for the service and sacrifices you have made for our country. I too am a lifetime AQHA member. If you ever get the idea that you want to use your mares in a different way, let me know. I’ll be glad to break and train them to harness for you. You can still use them, enjoy them and keep them in shape and not have to use your stomach muscles. It’s what kept me going when I went thru breast cancer and reconstructive surgeries. Hugs to you both!
    Cindy & Jim Meldrum :o)

  7. Thank you so much for your service to this great country. I also have 4 legged kids 2 quarter horses 1 who is 28 yrs and spoiled rotten and understands what I say to him and a 5 yr old mare who when you telled her shes pretty will stand very still plus 6 dogs 5 aussies and 1 chihuahua plus a turtle when katrina all left town

  8. Thank you all for your support. Norris is retired and enjoying working in his shop at home and keeps busy repairing weed eaters, lawnmowers, and making bamboo fly rods. He looks great and unless you have read the book you would never know how badly he was njured. He has permanent nerve damage down his right side and was awarded a service dog from The Tower Of Hope.org “Willie” keeps him from falling down so much and helps him walk longer distances without tiring out so quickly. He did go to Reno NV and get our little “Sugar” back home. Our Cremello mare “Showa Bit ‘O Sugar” is happy to be back home and makes our little band complete. Thank God for those who wish to give back to their country and wear the military uniform so we don’t have to. I have several troops to whom I write letters and keep in touch. I especially “adopt” combat medics on the battlefield as Norris was saved by a “Whiskey”. Stay tuned to AQHA and they will keep you updated. AQHA has been so very supportive to us while we underwent four years of surgeries and recovery at Walter Reed. Thank you all so very much. May God Bless our troops.

  9. For the love of our horses, they give us therapy, and courage to
    live our lives. I have a brother who served in Vietnam, a horse gave him courage, we did alot of parades together. Now he sometimes helps me with my Qtr. Horse gelding, Waja. I too
    know the wounds of War. I’m so glad Norris kept his courage up
    and is doing well. Horses help us to get through alot of
    illness, tragedies, so all for the love a horse and animals in
    general. I have a 20 gal. fish tank, 2 cats, and my beautiful, dun,
    Qtr. Horse gelding, he is the love of my life, he is so smart, he thinks he is Mr. Ed., and also Houdini, he thinks he is human sometimes, you’d just love him. He gives me support and hugs when I’m down and depressed. So keep up the good work
    Norris, maybe you donot ride anymore, but your horses are there for you, and give hugs, kisses when you need them.
    Family too. We were there for my brother, he now is having medico problems, sustained from the War. May God be with you always.

  10. This story really touched me. I live about two hours from Meridian. I have bipolar depression and horses are the most amazing animals to help fight it and they have kept me alive. I have a deep respect for the military because my grandfather was in Ww2 and my uncle was in Vietnam. I have a long line on both sides going back to the revolutionary war.

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