Horseback Riding

A Soldier’s Unbroken Courage

April 11, 2011

After recovering from his serious Iraq-war injuries, this veteran set out again to find his long-lost mare.

By Lesley Martin for America’s Horse Daily

After selling "Sugar" as 6-month old filly, veteran Grayson "Norris" Galatas found and recovered his long-lost mare. Photo courtesy of Janis Galatas.

Some readers may remember Sgt. 1st Class Grayson “Norris” Galatas, 48, from “A Soldier’s Courage.”

On April 19, 2005, the Meridian, Mississippi, soldier had been driving a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck in Baghdad, Iraq, when he crossed a buried improvised explosive device, which detonated and seriously injured Norris and one other soldier. Norris’ grueling recovery – inspired by his wife, Janis, and their three American Quarter Horses – was detailed recently on America’s Horse Daily. It was previously featured in America’s Horse magazine and in his wife’s book, “A Soldier’s Courage.”

Recently, America’s Horse Daily caught up with Norris to get an update on this heroic veteran and his horses.

Discharged in January 2009, Norris moved back home and enjoys time with his horses. “Our lives wouldn’t be the same without them,” he says. “I enjoy going out every morning and feeding them their hay, and watching them do what they do … like Daisy was out there taking a nap in the sun.”

They still care for the original three mares, “Mandy,” “Ruffian” and “Cinnamon,” but have since added two more to the herd: “Sugar” and “Daisy.”

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When Janis bought Skips Nightingale, or Mandy, as a weanling in 1989, she had no idea then that buckskin would become a hot color. “Everyone tried to buy her from me,” says Janis. “I decided not to sell Mandy, but breed her to a palomino and get a really nice palomino colt.”

She bred Mandy in 1998 to Showa Bars, an Impressive son with a Palomino Horse Breeders of America World Championship in halter. Janis knew breeding a buckskin to a palomino had a one-in-four chance of producing a cremello, but she didn’t know that cremellos could not be registered with AQHA at the time. (Cremellos and perlinos – both “double dilutes” – were accepted into the registry in 2003.)

“When Sugar was born, she looked just like the Easter bunny – she was a cremello,” Janis says. “Now we had a beautiful cremello filly, just gorgeous, but the wrong color.”

Registering the filly as breeding stock with the American Paint Horse Association, Janis sold the weanling to a breeder in Louisiana. Janis then bred Mandy to Misters Tradition – a chestnut to avoid another cremello – and “Cinnamon” was born. They love and still own Cinnamon, but Janis always thought of Sugar.

“Janis always said if we ever had the opportunity to get Sugar back, that we would. She’d do whatever it took to get her back,” Norris says.

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A decade later, and after Norris’ health had stabilized, Janis and Norris searched for Sugar. She had been sold through Louisiana, California, Wyoming and Montana, before ending up on a breeding farm near Reno, Nevada. They contacted the man who owned her, who said he’d keep in touch if he decided to sell Sugar.

While waiting on Sugar, Janis then found another cremello on the Internet in Arkansas.

“At this time, we were still hoping to buy Sugar back, but her owner in Nevada hadn’t said yes or no or anything,” Norris says. After he and Janis saw how Doc Daisy Deuce lived – in a cramped pasture, underweight, eating poor hay and cattle feed – they decided in February 2009 to buy her.

Three months later, Sugar’s owner called the Galatases, offering to sell her.

“It’s like people trying to get pregnant, they can’t, so they adopt … then they get pregnant!” Janis says with a laugh.

Yet, because Norris still had some military obligations, they couldn’t pick Sugar up until December. “The man was supposed to be taking care of Sugar until we got her, but I was afraid he might neglect her because he didn’t own her anymore,” Norris says. “So getting Sugar was a high priority for me, but I was still waiting for my discharge from the Army.”

They could have shipped Sugar, but it was more economical for Norris to go get her himself. He was finally able to leave on the 2,300-mile journey the day after Thanksgiving 2009. Despite the 12-degree nights, this veteran saved money by roughing it in his old Army sleeping bag on a cot in the horse trailer.

When Norris reached Carson City, Nevada, he moved out of the horse trailer into the home of a longtime friend, P.J. Degross. In 2005, P.J. read Norris’ story on the Internet, contacted him and, after a lengthy conversation, asked Norris what he needed. “I said, ‘I’m fine, but you could help my guys,’ ” says Norris, referring to his nine comrades left in Iraq.

P.J. did help, but she adopted more than just Norris’ platoon – she adopted Norris’ entire unit. Gathering the support of friends and neighbors to help care for the 425 soldiers, P.J. founded her website, Webofsupport.com. It is a soldier-adoption program, which Janis  partners on.

Now P.J. was helping Norris again, this time in getting Sugar back. After Norris stayed with P.J. and her husband, Patrick, the friends drove to outskirts of Reno to pick up Sugar. The local news broadcasted the reunion of a wounded soldier and his horse.

“(The farm) had several cremellos, but it didn’t take long to recognize her. I could look at her and see both her mommy and her daddy,” says Norris, who hadn’t seen the mare since she was 6 months old.

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Now Sugar is home with the other horses, where she’ll happily live the rest of her days. Because of Norris’ severe injuries, he has few abdominal muscles and cannot ride, so he just enjoys the horses and cares for them.

They also distract him from the chronic pain.

“I prefer not to take pain medication, any at all, so if I can take less because I’m doing something else, I will,” says Norris, who has taken up making bamboo fly-rods and working on cars, watches and clocks to busy his mind.

Norris also suffers from brain trauma and nerve damage, which is why he needs his service dog, “Willie.” Willie was given to Norris by Tower of Hope, which gives service dogs to wounded veterans.

Norris’ injuries are internal and, generally, less understood. He is not an amputee or burn victim, so strangers cannot see the extent of his handicaps. But after his brain trauma and nerve damage, Norris needs Willie to help him balance, especially on something like an escalator.

To give back, Norris now travels to Tower of Hope fundraisers to help contributors understand what good the charity does. But the horses are still what Norris most enjoys.

“I still wouldn’t trade the horses for anything in the world,” Norris says. “My love of horses extends back to when I was a young child. Along my walk to school there was a horse in a pasture … I used to stop and pull some grass for him and give it to him through the fence.”

Norris wished he could ride horses to school, like his mother did when she was a child.

“I found out she would ride her horse to school, then turn the mare loose and she’d go back home,” he says. “And I just thought that was the neatest thing in the world!”

Norris’ full story can be read in “A Soldier’s Courage,” available at Amazon.com.