BROUGHT TOGETHER BY WAR HALF A WORLD AWAY, SURGEON
AND MAJOR GENERAL FORGE FRIENDSHIP 16 YEARS LATER
KINGSPORT – Gary Harrell saw Dr. Robert Harris walking in his direction and rose to say hello. When the two men met, they embraced with a hearty hug and pats on the back.
By everyday standards, it was an ordinary greeting. But the circumstances that forged their friendship are anything but ordinary.
It took Harrell 16 years to learn his life and Dr. Harris' are intertwined – a revelation that came about during a casual conversation last summer with Congressman Phil Roe, R-1st.
Ret. Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell, meet Ret. Lt. Col. Robert Harris, one of the men who saved your leg after the famous Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, Somalia. Dr. Harris, now a board-certified orthopedic traumatologist at Holston Valley Medical Center, helped treat Harrell in Mogadishu in 1993 and later teamed with another doctor at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., to fix Harrell's fractured femur with a then-new medical device.
"We were just doing our jobs," Dr. Harris said. "Maj. Gen. Harrell's a great American. Those guys are the true warriors and heroes."
It was combat that originally brought Harrell and Dr. Harris together, but their new friendship was facilitated by geography. Both men now live in Johnson City.
In August, Dr. Harris went to hear Rep. Roe speak and talked to the congressman afterward. Roe learned Dr. Harris had been in special operations and had been stationed at Fort Bragg. The U.S. representative asked him whether he knew Harrell. Dr. Harris told Roe, yes, he had treated Harrell in Mogadishu and at Fort Bragg.
Harrell, 58, retired from the Army in 2008 after a 34-year career. These days, he spends months at a time working in Amman, Jordan, at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center, a complex that helps America combat terrorism. He was there when he received an e-mail from Roe relaying his conversation with Dr. Harris. Roe supplied Dr. Harris' e-mail address.
And, thus, the men became reacquainted nearly two decades after Black Hawk Down.
In 1993, Harrell was a lieutenant colonel and a ground forces commander in Somalia. During a search for American personnel after Black Hawk Down, Harrell was wounded when a mortar shell landed about a foot from him. Without knowing it then, the subsequent injuries he suffered put him on a path to become linked forever with Dr. Harris.
"I went to get up and put my elbow down," Harrell said. "I saw my elbow in a crater, looked at my leg and saw a lot of blood."
Both of his legs were broken and filled with shrapnel. Special operations forces aided him first, putting their hands in his right leg and rags in his left. A doctor came and worked on his right leg in the midst of sporadic fire.
Eventually, Harrell was placed in a helicopter and taken to the military hospital in Mogadishu. There, Dr. Harris, who was then an Army major, helped perform tasks such as irrigating and debriding the legs. Harrell doesn't remember because he wasn't in any condition to.
But perhaps the most memorable component of the two men's connection came at Womack, where Dr. Harris worked with Dr. Jim Stannard to insert a supracondylar nail to treat Harrell's fractured femur. The nail maintains the bone at the proper length and rotation.
"It was one of the newer devices for this type of fracture at the time," Dr. Harris said. "We usually got the newer things before anyone else did. Fort Bragg had a very active orthopedic department."
The nail was used instead of a plate, which had been the standard treatment.
"Maj. Gen. Harrell and his wife feel the rod rather than the plate saved the leg because there is less potential for infection," Dr. Harris said. "I agree. It worked out the best for him."
In their first e-mail correspondence, Harrell had a message for Dr. Harris for the treatment he was given.
"I don't really remember you, but thanks," the message said.
Dr. Harris e-mailed back, telling Harrell it was good to hear him. He also told his former patient to let him know if Harrell or his family had any medical needs because he would take care of them or find someone else who could. As a result, Harrell's wife, Jennifer, underwent knee replacement surgery at Holston Valley in the fall.
In an amusing moment, Harrell recently showed Dr. Harris the positive after-effects of his surgery at Womack.
When the two met for the first time, Dr. Harris asked Harrell how his leg was. The major general picked up the surgeon and jumped up and down a few times.
"I said, 'Sir, you're good to go,' " Dr. Harris said.