When I was young my parents taught me about perspective. To them, having a son who was going blind meant that they needed to not just teach it, they had to make it penetrate the skull of an impressionable young mind. Over the years, perspective has served me well. You see, when you have it, it means that there are really no excuses for living through what life tends to throw at you. A day never goes by where I don't use the life lesson of perspective in dealing with the hills, curves and obstacles that my life has delivered, right on time, never late, never unexpected. On a Friday in March was no exception. That day it wasn’t what happened to me, it was what happened “for me.” I had the distinct an honored pleasure of meeting Nate Harrison, that day’s lesson was a refresher course on perspective. It was a “Masters Level Course” because along with perspective I was taught attitude and what it takes to gain victory by never surrendering as you relentlessly rip it from the jaws of defeat.
I met with Nate at the ATF or Adaptive Training Foundationwhich is a place dedicated to taken what was broken and putting it back together. From the outside, you might mistake it for one of many gyms that dot the American landscape. However, walk through the door and meet the athletes inside and you soon discover that it isn't just a gym, it is a Gem, a Diamond for those with unique challenges. With intensive training methods they address whole health, body mind and spirit with the goal of healing where healing was thought to be a one-dimensional placation, they make it a 3-D reality. The ATF understands the simple philosophy that we are all scarred by the battle of life. Some of us wear those scars on the outside, some wear them quietly on the inside and a select few wear them inside and out. The Adaptive Training Foundation isn't for everyone, it is for the segment of society once thought too broken, missing too much, needing too much. A line of thought the founder David Voboraa 5-year veteran of the NFL happened to believe was simply wrong. He saw potential where others did not. This thought transformation was realized after meeting a quadruple amputee, Staff Sergeant Travis Mills. David, inspired by Travis, opened his gym to him and trained with him. His passion turned to action as he became determined to accept the challenge of creating Diamonds from dust. The ATF became a place you witness that process, the revolution of those thought once to be incapable transform the Zeitgeist narrative of “less than” to MORE THAN. What follows is a story of triumph, of inspiration, a tale of what “could have been,” turned on its head to reveal what is possible. The ATF simply adds a strategic apostrophe to the word “Impossible” turning it into a life choice that says I’m Possible” in spite of the labels prescribed by society.
Nate Harrison is an inspiration, an oasis in the desert of tragedy. He represents the definition of grit and determination in the face of unspeakable odds. Nate served his country as a Marine during the conflict in Iraq. His post was in Fallujah, arguably one of the single most deadly places in that theater of war. Upon returning from the sandbox as he would call it, Nate began his work as a police officer in Kansas City Missouri. Nate survived his tour in Iraq, his time in the military. He survived his time on the streets as a cop. What brought him to the edge happened on a long stretch of I-435 in Missouri. It was late one evening and he was returning home after spending some time with friends. As he drove the dark roads that evening a car swerved into his path causing him to react taking Nate onto the shoulder of the highway where he hit something that launched him from the seat of his motorcycle. Hurling through the air he hit a sign, tore the lower third of his leg off after hitting a sign post. Nate came to rest just off the road. He lay there bleeding out for 14 hours losing almost all the blood in his body. The fact that he was sitting there telling me this story is still a medical miracle and one not easily explained by doctors. As a result of the massive blood loss due to the horrific injuries sustained Nate was left not only missing part of his leg, he was left blind due to the fact that his eyes simply died because of the lack of oxygen, blood and the circulation needed to sustain them. Somewhere in the last hour of Nate’s 14-hour ordeal he recounted to me a very familiar story. There was a light, a feeling of calm, peace and comfort. Gone was the pain, the fear and doubt. He saw his father, a father who had passed some time ago. He was there to usher him through the veil into what comes after we die. But just as Nate was about to cross that great threshold, a shock, then another and the last thing he remembers is his father’s outstretched hand and Nate hurled away from the light and back to that cold ground. Two paramedics had arrived and the shock he felt, the one that drew him from his fathers outstretched hand, was the defibrillator and the frantic voices of the medics as they attempted to bring him back. At this point Nate revealed to me a kind of sadness, a loss of the warmth, beauty and comfort the light had provided.
He doesn’t remember much past that. Just the haunting memory of a peace that he had never experienced followed by what would amount to years of suffering and pain. Endless surgeries and a reeducation process that would teach him to live again. It was the simple things that we all take for granted. Like taking 15 minutes to simply plug something in, something that I could relate to since doing that simple task for me took a while to master. As if the simple things were hard enough to learn and master, there was so much more that would be required of Nate. He would have to learn how to walk again, he would have to learn how to do everything as a blind person now. Here was a man, a fit and vital member of an elite fighting force, a first responder at home, a hero in the eyes of many now only a fraction of the man that was, or was he? This is the point in the story where you could look at life and simply give in, say I am done, dwell in a pit of misery as a victim of the cruelty of life. But that is not what a Marine does, that is not what a man who serves and protects his fellow man does, the kind of guy who is the first man through the door in a crisis situation. That is not what Nate Harrison did. Instead, he took what would reduce many into a victim and turned it on its head. What seemed impossible now became his new mission, his new cause. If someone said, “You can’t do that!” With a look, the one you would expect from a battle tested Vet, Nate would reply, “Here, hold my beer and watch me!” Now the road to recovery isn't that easy, Nate hid his difficulties, his setbacks and his doubts. But the man that sat next to me that day showed me the type of character that he had, they type of grit and determination he had to look adversity in the eye and say, “Not today.”
In any true story of inspiration there are some imperative takeaways. First, we can never minimize the comeback story exhibited by an individual who has had everything taken away from them, physically, mentally and socially coupled with the innate will to survive and ultimately thrive. Second, we must see our own personal possibilities in times of loss and crisis. Meaning and doing it without taking away from the remarkable story we have witnessed that we to have the innate ability to survive and thrive when it is our turn to face the refining fire of life. Our fire will be different, the injuries that lead us to that point will never look exactly the same. I have lived my own life of struggle, Nate has lived his, we all will find ourselves in the middle of a fire we believe at the moment will be our end. However, when that switch is flipped internally, when you realize that it isn't meant to destroy you, it is meant to refine you, harden you like the finest steel, temper you, shape you into the person you were meant to be. It is then you can boldly walk through the flames of the refiner’s fire and come out a better and more improved version of yourself. I didn’t know the Nate that existed before he went through his refinement process, but it has been my pleasure to meet, know, spend time with the new and improved Nate because he is living proof in the concept that in spite of tragedy, in spite of loss, a better person is waiting out there for you to discover if only you have the temerity to walk through your refiner’s fire and emerge on the other side better. That is the potential of Nate, the beauty of his story and the truth of what each of us possess
While we must celebrate the impressive leaps made by Nate and those I met at the ATF we must also use their stories to validate the possible that exists within each one of us. In doing that we honor their loss, we honor their comeback, we show them that they have taught us to triumph over tragedy. Out loud we celebrate them while we use that opportunity internally to value our own abilities and potential in the face of misfortune. It was once said by someone fancier with words than I am capable of, “The soft bigotry of low expectations,” was a problem that plagued our society, a statement that at the time was meant to focus on the inequality of minorities and of those with little means and even less education. For those of us who are blind I think the words should read something like this, “The harsh reality of very little to no expectations.” That is where the blind and many with disabilities dwell, relegated to the shadows. However, if we employ perspective understanding that no matter what our situation may be, out there among the billions of people walking the earth, told in the life story of the billions who came before us, exist the stories that prove the fact that if we think or believe we got a raw deal, somewhere out there is someone whose deal is far worse than ours. They looked tragedy, devastation and suffering in the eye and said, “You don't own me, you don't define me or the terms of my life.” They instead rise, and make what others told them was impossible their opportunity to enter the refiners fire and boldly come through the other side defiantly. They stand as monuments to the human spirit to not just survive, but thrive. Nate Harrison survived, and he is thriving and his spirit, character and abilities serve as motivation for me, for those in his ATF Tribe and hopefully to anybody who reads this. Remember, if you are sitting there reading this as a sighted person with those beautiful eyes of yours son your computer or phone or tablet then you are already 1 step ahead of Nate and I because you aren’t blind, that’s perspective.
I want to extend a special thank you to the Adaptive Training Foundation as well as Shawn Fitzmaurice or “Fitz” for making the introduction to Nate Harrison. Shawn’s Passion and dedication to the mission of the ATF is what brought this story to light. I also want to thank AIRA because in truth our meeting was made possible because of my work and belief in the difference AIRA can make in the life of someone with visual impairments.
Picture of Nate Harrison with Eric Burton at the Adaptive Training Foundation Facility.