CLEMSON, S.C.— “I don't think words can ever suffice for what I felt during the attack,” said Sgt. Keyana Harrison, a medic deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 with the 174th Military Airlift Command from the South Carolina Army National Guard. “I was about to hop in the shower, and there was a rocket attack. I never made it to the shower. I sustained multiple shrapnel injuries all over my body, but was aware enough to know I needed a tourniquet.”
Harrison’s story is one of thousands that reiterates the experiences of veterans across the country. Due to her injuries, Harrison received the Purple Heart, a decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving on or after April 5, 1917, with the U.S. military. The Purple Heart was created by George Washington, originally called the Badge of Military Merit.
Clemson University, with its rich military background, always strives to honor America’s veterans. This year, through a student-led initiative, fans attending the military appreciation football game against the Citadel Nov. 23, were asked to ‘purple out’ in honor of Purple Heart recipients across the country.
During the game, university President, James F. Barker, presented a special proclamation to the Military Order of the Purple Heart declaring that Clemson is a ‘Purple Heart University.’
Harrison is a strong believer in what Clemson is doing to honor wounded veterans.
“When I was recovering I saw so many young people whose lives were drastically altered,” said Harrison. “Nineteen-year-olds paralyzed from the neck down, mothers and fathers with limbs lost, Soldiers crying on the inside but standing tall despite their injuries. To honor those heroes is a beautiful thing! Sometimes they just want people to understand what they gave up. They don't want pity … they just want someone to respect and honor the sacrifice.”
To Harrison, the Purple Heart means resiliency and courage. Despite what she went through, she still represents the military with a strong salute and a smile.
“The mental challenges are the hardest. I am still in therapy learning how to interact with others. Physically, I just keep pressing and I do get frustrated,” she said. “But the fact that I am still alive with a supportive family reminds me that I am winning and to keep trying.”
Clemson football has its own resilient Soldier to remind them of the sacrifice others have made. Daniel Rodriguez, a wide receiver, was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his actions in Afghanistan during the Battle of Kamdesh Oct. 3, 2009.
After a stint in community college, he enrolled at Clemson in 2012 and was granted preferred walk-on status to the football team. For the past two years Rodriguez has led the team down the hill before the military appreciation game.
“To have the veterans and Purple Heart recipients in the stands, and to be able to represent them on the field is amazing,” said Rodriguez.
In his second year at Clemson, Rodriguez scored his first touchdown on a 2-yard pass during the fourth quarter of the military appreciation game.
“It was a pretty powerful feeling,” Rodriguez said. “I was thinking about my buddies still in the military. I’ve lost 24 friends in different conflicts. This was for them and everything I’ve gone through. The sentimental value is awesome.”
Rodriguez understands all too well the difficulties of leaving the military and reintegrating into a world that is very unfamiliar with the issues facing those returning from deployments.
“Transition from combat to civilian life is tough – find your niche, find what makes you happy,” said Rodriguez. “No matter what you’ve gone through, keep fighting like you did when you were in (the military). There’s still plenty of life left after you take the uniform off.”
Harrison is already thinking of ways to put those words into action. She will be medically retired from the Guard at the end of November. She plans to continue with her custom handbag business, but she is also considering writing a book about her experiences in hopes of helping other female combat veterans.
“I grew and matured a lot and met many outstanding people,” she said of her seven years in the military. “A lot of the things I learned definitely spill over into my civilian life.”
While others ponder what they are thankful for during this time of year, Harrison can sum it up in two words. “My life! I am grateful that my life experiences have helped me to adjust after everything and I am still able to see the good in almost everything.”
Rodriguez is also extremely thankful for everything he has ahead of him. “The day I earned my Purple Heart I had eight friends killed. It could very easily have been me buried in Arlington instead of them.”
While he’s extremely honored to have his Purple Heart, he says he’s no different than any other veteran. “I try to see it as a positive way to make me a better person and live in honor for the guys who aren’t here today.”