Capt. John Gillam, former coach of the Harker Heights lacrosse team, watches alongside Capt. Jackie Ollivant, Center, of Harker Heights, and Hope Ollivant, 6 years old of Harker Heights, during the Harker Heights lacrosse game against Round Rock on Friday. Gillam was the former coach of the Harker Heights team and has returned from Iraq after being wounded.
Former coach injured in Iraq returns for HHHS lacrosse contest
By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
HARKER HEIGHTS – Once a coach, always a coach. Capt. John Gilliam sat in the stands of last night’s Harker Heights High School lacrosse game at Union Grove Middle School. He wore a black polo shirt with the word “coach” stitched across the spot where his nametape would normally sit.The final quarter of the game against Round Rock’s Stony Point High School was intense; after trailing the entire game, Harker Heights came back to tie the game at 10. Though Gilliam’s left leg was in bandages from just below his knee to his ankle, the former coach jumped to his feet or crouched low to the ground during each intense play, yelling directions to his former players.
Gilliam is a troop commander for 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. He is staying at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio after being wounded in Iraq on Feb. 3.
Gilliam and some of his soldiers were searching for a sniper on Baghdad’s infamous Haifa Street when an insurgent threw a hand grenade. The captain’s radio operator threw himself on Gilliam when the grenade detonated. The radio took the brunt of the destruction and the operator was unharmed. However, Gilliam took shrapnel to his upper calf and it severed a main artery.
Four days later, he arrived in San Antonio and 10 surgeries later, he was able to watch his former team play in Harker Heights – the first time he has been back to the Fort Hood area since being wounded. Gilliam’s wife, Capt. Erin McGill, is also a 1st Cavalry soldier, serving in the 2nd Brigade’s 15th Brigade Support Battalion.
He started coaching the team in the fall of 2005 when organizers heard he was a former player at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He grew up playing the sport and started whipping the young team into shape.
When the captain first showed up, the players were terrified of him, said Jaci Ollivant, the mother of two players, Evan and Caleb. He worked them, she said, getting them in shape for a sport that requires considerable stamina.
Ollivant, her athlete sons and five other children, are familiar with the military life. Her husband, Lt. Col. Doug Ollivant, serves as the 1st Cavalry’s chief of plans, and is in Iraq now.
Coaching the players – many of whom had never played lacrosse – was much like leading young soldiers, Gilliam said. It is the same process of training them to do unfamiliar and difficult tasks, he added.
Gilliam looked around the stands last night and the crowd is a lot bigger than when he coached, he said with a smile.
Watching his team play on a windy March evening beats the heck out of sitting in a hospital, he said. A few days after Gilliam arrived at the medical center, the players visited him during a game road trip to San Antonio.
Lacrosse is a club sport at the school, meaning it isn’t funded like more popular sports such as football. The team is held together by a set of dedicated parents, volunteers like Gilliam and a close-knit group of players – many of them Army kids.
Of the nearly 30 players on the roster, 70 percent of them have parents who are serving or have served in the military, said Gregg Bennett, of the Harker Heights Lacrosse Association.
A lot of these kids played when their parents were stationed on the East Coach, where the sport is much more popular.
When the game ended with Harker Heights losing by two points, Gilliam limped across the field to go visit with the players. First hearing of the injury was scary for Bennett, he said, as he stood in the emptying stands after the game.
Bennett said he just had images of Gilliam running around the field with the players, and is thankful the injury wasn’t so bad that he wouldn’t be able to do that anymore.
Now, Gilliam’s top priority is getting better so he can rejoin his “guys” in Iraq. He is hopeful that he can rejoin the troop in a month.
It’s extremely hard to be here knowing his guys are in Iraq without him, he said. But if there was one place he’d rather be, it would be out there, coaching those kids, he said, nodding his head toward the field.