The Faith to Stand Tall

The Faith to Stand Tall

Returning soldiers face incredible adversity. This one found the faith to grow strong in it.

Colonel Greg Gadson

I never thought quitting was in my DNA. I never thought about giving up. I was strong. I played football at West Point. I was an officer in the U.S. Army. I had a wonderful marriage and two beautiful children.

But war can change you. War can turn you inside out. And adversity can either break you or make you stronger. It is a lesson thousands of our men and women in uniform have learned over the last decade, a lesson that began for me one day in Iraq in 2007.

The ride back to Camp Liberty, our battalion headquarters northeast of Baghdad International Airport, was supposed to be routine that May night. Not safe—in 2007, no Iraqi road was safe—but the paved, four-lane highway we were driving was considered less risky than most.

My men and I—I was commander of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery unit—had just left Forward Operating Base Falcon, eight miles south of Baghdad’s Green Zone.

We’d gone there to attend a memorial service for two soldiers in our brigade who’d been killed by an IED—an improvised explosive device, a crude but deadly roadside bomb used by insurgents.

There were four M1151 armored Humvees in our convoy, each with five soldiers. I was riding shotgun in the third Humvee.

And then it happened. We ran over an object on my side of the vehicle. An IED buried under the asphalt. It happened faster than the mind can process. The flash and the boom, in that order.

I remember being propelled out of the 400-pound, two-inch-thick door of the Humvee. I felt a galvanizing rush of adrenaline. It was like one of those scenes in Saving Private Ryan, where a battle is being fought all around you and time seems to freeze.

I remember the Humvee careening past and me rolling to the side of the road. I didn’t think I was hurt. I remember being angry. Way more than angry. Furious. How dare these guys do this! I thought. We’re here, trying to make a difference in this country.

I tried to gather myself. My first thought was, Where is my rifle? I wanted to be able to protect myself and my men, because insurgents often followed up an IED attack with small-arms fire.

I reached around, feeling for my weapon, and realized I couldn’t move. All at once I knew: I was hurt, badly. My head swam. I thought about my wife, Kim, our kids, and our home back in Virginia. My last thought was, God, I don’t want to die here.

When I came to, our first sergeant was kneeling over me, and a medic was wrapping tourniquets around my legs. The ground was sopping; I was lying in a pool of my own blood. Soldiers carried me to one of the remaining Humvees, and laid me inside, on my back.

I looked down and saw something odd. My left foot was folded over on my lap.

I tried to move it. Nothing happened.

“I can’t feel my legs. What’s wrong with my legs?”

“Don’t worry, sir,” the medic said, “your legs are going to be fine.”

I nodded okay, but somehow I knew otherwise. Maybe it was the fear and urgency in his voice. And maybe it was then that the question silently took root: Would I ever be fine again?

We raced back to Forward Operating Base Falcon, my head cradled in the medic’s lap. He wouldn’t stop talking. “Stay awake!” he kept saying. “Keep fighting! Don’t you quit on me!”

I asked him to say the Soldier’s Prayer.

He met my eyes, and began to recite those sacred words. “Brave warriors, should fate find us in battle....”

Suddenly I felt so tired. I just wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep. For a minute, forever, it didn’t matter. But deep within me an inner voice urged, Don’t quit. Don’t give up...

The rest is a blur. I made it to Base Falcon, then to Baghdad on a medevac chopper. And finally back to the U.S., to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. That’s where doctors decided they had to amputate my left leg. The next day, they told me that because the bones in my right leg were completely shattered and so much tissue was damaged, they’d have to take that leg too.

All my life, I’d been a physical man. Built like a buffalo. Played linebacker at The Point. Served in three wars. Yet lying there week after week in Walter Reed, I wasn’t depressed. Not then. I had so many visitors—Kim, our children, relatives, nearly 20 years’ worth of Army friends.

We’d laugh and kid around, tell old stories, family stories, Army stories. Stories kept me going.

And then Walter Reed released me. “You’re ready to go home now, Colonel.”

I couldn’t wait. I craned my head as the Army ambulance pulled into our driveway. “Isn’t it wonderful to be back?” Kim asked, as aides helped me inside. I looked around the house. At the stairs I could no longer climb, at the tight corners where it would take effort for a wheelchair to turn.

That’s when it really hit me: This is for keeps.

The stream of visitors had stopped. There was no hustle and bustle of doctors and nurses. The house was quiet, especially when the kids were in school and Kim had things to do. Everyone’s lives seemed so busy, so full. Mine, not so much. Go to physical therapy, head back home, rest.

It became clear, cruelly clear, how dependent I was. Not long before, if I needed something, I hopped in my truck and got it. Now I had to ask for help doing the simplest things, like getting into the bathtub to shower.

One day, I wanted to go to my son Jaelen’s youth football game. The planning that went into it—it was like a military operation! Kim marched into the bedroom hours early. “We have to get you dressed,” she said.

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