SAVANNAH, Ga.— In October 2003 Staff Sgt. Gary Hatcher had just returned from rest and recuperation and jumped right back into the thick of war during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom in Mosul. No sooner had he returned to his unit at the time, 326th Engineer Battalion out of Fort Campbell, Ky., than an improvised explosive device blast derailed his convoy, resulting in shrapnel to his left shoulder. There were two other soldiers who sustained injuries in his vehicle, as well as five Infantrymen in the vehicle behind him. Despite the pain, he returned fire and helped his fellow soldiers get to safety.
You would never know this without asking him to tell the story. Humility is a hallmark of Hatcher’s persona. It permeates the smallest nuances of his character, from the way he smiles and politely laughs off the mantle of heroism, to the kindness in his blue eyes, to the brief and exacting way he describes the attack that made him the recipient of the Purple Heart months after he began his road to recovery.
“I needed to return fire and get out of there,” said Hatcher, succinctly wrapping up what it was like to let his instincts and training take over. “We went up to the next (forward operating base) and transported the wounded out of there.”
The first chance he got, he called his wife, Nikki, to let her know he was alright. Now married 11 years, at the time they were newlyweds; their young marriage turned out to be as as resilient as his wounded shoulder and his calm under pressure, hit with its first scare.
Of his injury and the slight pain that remains, Hatcher said, “It’s nothing bad. I’m luckier than most.”
Ten years later, his shoulder all but healed, with four deployments under his belt, a platoon of soldiers under his care in the 24th Ordnance Company, 87th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., an associates and bachelor's degree completed, it would seem that Hatcher has moved on. The Army, however, has not, and so this Veterans Day weekend, his act of heroism is being honored with a free stay in the Azalea Inn in Savannah courtesy of owners Teresa and Mike Jacobson, which just happens to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of his lifesaving actions in Mosul, Iraq.
Hatcher’s grandfather is retired Air Force, so an appreciation for Veterans Day isn’t new. The Jacobsons also have a long lineage of veterans in their family tree, stretching back to WWI and serving in all the branches of service. This caused them to not only join the B&B for Vets enterprise founded by the Professional Association for Innkeepers Initiative (PAII), which extends a free room for one night to veterans, but to donate all 40 rooms for one night a month to local active duty soldiers and their spouses.
Having served in the Army herself, and after being touched by the story of a wounded warrior in 2011, Teresa said, “It was inspiring. Afterwards I said, 'I’d love to give two nights, once a month, to a wounded warrior.'”
The decision to expand from there was an organic one, leaving soldiers like Hatcher and his wife, Nikki, to appreciate Veterans Day in a lovely and tranquil environment.
“It’s nice to see people and businesses that care,” said Hatcher. “They’re grateful for our service and actually put effort toward making us feel appreciated.”
As for how Hatcher has gotten to this point and excelled in the Army, his advice to his fellow soldiers is simple.
“If you just do your job and go above and beyond that’s all you really need,” said Hatcher. “Just train and care about your soldiers. You need to pay attention and take it seriously, because I didn’t think I’d need to use (my training) like that, but it kicked in. I didn’t have to think about it. You just react.”
He also wanted people to take time out this Veterans Day to thank a veteran for his or her service. Of course, true to humble form, Hatcher doesn’t expect the same for himself. He merely counts himself a lucky well-trained soldier who will spend a nice weekend with his wife. Still, he was touched not long ago by a simple act of kindness extended to a fellow brother in arms.
“I was on leave, it was Halloween,” said Hatcher, “and there was this young kid, this teenager. A WWII vet was sitting on a bench and he just went up to him and said ‘Oh, are you military?’. The guy said ‘yes’ and he just said ‘thank you’. Just stopped in the middle of what he was doing – trick-o-treating – and thanked a veteran. It was just rare seeing a probably 13 or 14-year-old with his friends stop and thank someone. Just a simple act of kindness and courtesy goes a long way. Thank a veteran if you can.”