Soldiering On

UPDATED: May 9, 2012
PUBLISHED: May 9, 2012

Col. Greg Gadson is a big man, a former linebacker who played for Army, a highly decorated veteran who saw action in just about every major conflict of the last two decades. He is an imposing figure even today, standing atop prosthetic legs.

In conversations, Gadson emphasizes that the injuries he suffered in a roadside bombing in Iraq are not the important part of his story; instead, he focuses on what and whom he relied upon to survive and recover. He also talks about the future.

You may have heard about Gadson. He’s got a supporting role playing a Special Forces Army officer in the Peter Berg action-epic Battleship. In 2009, he gained notoriety for assisting scientists in pioneering the Power Knee 2, which features new artificial intelligence and sensor technology. And not long after he was wounded, Gadson made headlines for helping inspire the New York Giants toward their Super Bowl XLII victory.

Only months before meeting the Giants, Gadson had been in Iraq. As commander of the 2nd Battalion 32nd Field Artillery unit, which he had built from the ground up, Gadson was returning from a memorial service for a sister battalion in 2007 when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device. The blast shattered his body. “My life was really in doubt,” Gadson says.

“My team got tourniquets on my legs and sped me to ground where I could get medevacked out.” Meantime, an 18-year-old PFC medic refused to allow him to lose consciousness, “yelling at me and just literally willing me to stay conscious and keep fighting.”

Gadson reached the hospital with just 15 minutes left of the “golden hour,” that period following a critical injury when odds of survival are greatest. He says he owes his life to his men. Yet even after 70 pints of blood and the skilled work of military doctors, his fight was not over. Arterial infections cost him one leg and then the other.

“At my lowest points, when I wanted to throw in the towel and not live a life associated with losing my legs, I just couldn’t quit,” he says. “I’d never quit in my life and didn’t know how. That cold look in the mirror said, ‘What are you going to do Gadson? Are you going to fight or lay down?’ ”

Gadson summoned every bit of grit and determination he gained over a lifetime—from his parents who worked and attended college while raising him and his two siblings, from his coaches at the U.S. Military Academy and from his military instructors. “It’s about resiliency, and about how you live your life,” he says. “As an athlete, I learned to push myself further than I ever thought I could go. Being on deployment, fighting through tough times, you build that elasticity so that when you have that catastrophic event you have that resiliency to rebound.”

Gadson also had the unconditional support of his family. Married with a son and daughter then in grade school, “The soldier is not the only one who is wounded in this situation. The whole family is wounded. We all had to figure out a new normal.”

His former teammates and classmates also rallied to support him. One of them was Mike Sullivan, then quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants, who asked what he could do to help. Gadson expressed interest in taking his family to a game. The Giants, who had lost their first two games of the season, were to play their third game in Washington, D.C., near Gadson’s Virginia home. Sullivan took the idea a step further, asking head coach Tom Coughlin if his former teammate could speak to the team.

The night before the game, Gadson went to the Giants’ hotel. Still in the early stages of his recovery, with more surgery to undergo, a much frailer Gadson spoke from his wheelchair.

“I talked to them about their gifts as athletes, and the privilege and special opportunity that they have,” Gadson says. He also spoke about the power of sports—how a soldier would get up in the middle of the night after a 12-hour shift to watch a football game.

And he talked about the power of the team. “I told them that when we’re deployed, we’re fighting for our country and our flag and mom and dad and apple pie, but when it comes down to it, those things are the furthest thing from your mind. You’re fighting for that guy that is right next to you. Just like my soldiers, who came and fought for me and saved my life.”

Sullivan described the meeting to ESPN: “I never remember a room being that quiet. As the meeting broke, it was a standing ovation.”

At FedEx Field the next day, the Giants scored a 24-17 win over the Redskins. When Giants receiver Plaxico Burress made the game-winning catch, instead of celebrating in the end zone, he sprinted toward Gadson on the sideline and dropped the ball into his lap. “That’s when I became one of the Giants,” he says.

The team kept winning, and Gadson served as honorary co-captain in the NFC Championship Game and was on the sidelines in Arizona for Super Bowl XLII to watch New York upset the 18-0 New England Patriots. The team awarded him a Super Bowl ring in tribute. The relationship has continued: Earlier this year, Gadson watched from the sideline as another set of Giants beat the Patriots at Super Bowl XLVI.

Since being wounded, Gadson has been busy in other ways, completing master’s degrees in information systems and in policy management; working with scientists on the Power Knee 2, which helps above-the-knee amputees walk with increased confidence, safety and a more natural gait; and participating in the filming of Battleship.

Peter Berg, an avid Giants fan, had followed Gadson’s story and called him up. “He just said, ‘I want you to be in my movie,’ ” Gadson recalls. “I had never even played a tree in a school play, let alone acted. With acting, you have to be vulnerable, and in a way that’s contradictory to being in the military.” But Gadson enjoyed the experience: “When I was done filming I started missing it. I was part of a team again.”

Since 2010, he has held another role, helping veterans rebuild their lives as leader of the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior program. The program created in 2004 “recognizes that those with severe wounds, illnesses or injuries face difficulties—whether they want to continue to serve or transition to civilian life,” Gadson says.

“I’m thrilled we get to make a difference in people’s lives every day,” he says. “A lot of people entering the program are kind of in awe that I’ve been able to flourish, that I’ve been promoted since I was wounded, I’ve developed this relationship with the New York Giants, I’m in this movie, and I’m able to give speeches.”

He begins another challenge this summer when he takes command of a garrison at Fort Belvoir, Va. “I was pretty surprised when I came out on the command list, and I’m humbled and honored the Army is allowing me the opportunity to soldier on,” he told the Fort Leavenworth Lamp in March.

The base has a new world-class medical center that will be home to a 25,000-square-foot USO Warrior and Family Care Center supporting the nonmedical needs of healing heroes and their families. Of all the challenges he’s faced in his career and life, making a positive difference for veterans returning from the longest period of war the United States has waged could be the most daunting—and most important.

“There are no shortcuts in healing. It’s a process,” he told the Fort Hood Sentinel. “As dramatic as it is physically, it’s much more challenging emotionally and intellectually. What I found out is life is not about what we don’t have; it’s about what we have. I feel so fortunate to be here and have the opportunity to continue serving.”