News | Oct. 17, 2019

Double amputee veteran perseveres with faith, humor

By Dianne Ryder DLA Public Affairs

National Disability Employment Awareness Month highlights contributions of employees with disabilities and the important role they play in America’s economic success. Retired Army Col. Gregory Gadson demonstrated that point during his speech at the McNamara Headquarters Complex Oct. 16.

Gadson, a 1989 West Point graduate and former garrison commander of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, emphasized how government agencies and private businesses can benefit from the skills and talents of workers who have visible and invisible disabilities. 

“We take this month to recognize the diversity of those with disabilities, but every day we should be living what it means to extend dignity and respect to every single person we encounter,” he said.

The National Disability Act of 1991 brought about significant change for those with disabilities, especially in areas like building access and technology advances, Gadson said.

“Where we still fall short is in the employment arena. The unemployment rate of those with disabilities was right around 70% and it hasn’t changed much in nearly 30 years,” he said. “As a culture, we have to truly embrace our diversity.”

He compared the need for change in societal views of employees with disabilities to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The advances didn’t occur overnight, he said.

“But there has been progress, because we’ve held ourselves accountable; we’ve held ourselves to a higher standard,” he said. “Every single one of us has a challenge. And if you don’t, you will. More than half of the folks who have a disability are over the age of 65.”

Gadson said he still struggles with referring to himself as “disabled,” as he executes everyday tasks similarly to those without physical challenges.

He described the event in May 2007 that forever changed his life. Gadson was returning from a memorial service in Baghdad for two soldiers from his brigade when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.

“The blast lifted my 15,000-pound up-armored Humvee off the road and ejected me out of the vehicle,” he said. Lying flat on his back, he said he didn’t know what was wrong with him, he just knew he couldn’t move. “I said, ‘God, I don’t want to die here.’”

The veteran credits a young private for applying tourniquets that doctors later told him saved his life. He eventually lost both legs above the knee and suffered severe injury to his right arm.

“Most of us won’t have a vision of life when something like this happens to us,” he said. “I wanted to quit. But in that pity, in those tears, I found out that I wasn’t a quitter; that wasn’t my character.”

Gadson’s faith, gratitude and sense of humor have sustained him during the 12 years since the accident, leading him into new roles as an advocate for wounded warriors, a motivational speaker and an actor in films as well as on television.

“I rededicated myself to being present,” he said. “I realized that tomorrow is not promised, so I’m certainly not going to hold on to yesterday.”

He knew then he’d reached a point of acceptance and peace.

“None of us can change the past,” he told the audience. “One day, every single one of us here will not have a tomorrow, so let’s make the most of today. You don’t have to wonder ‘what if’ if you live up to being your best.”

Gadson continues to lead an energetic life as an entrepreneur and partner of a local government services company. He is also an accomplished photographer and artist, and remains active by cycling, skiing and scuba diving.

He was only 41 years old when he lost his legs, but Gadson said life goes on regardless of how one becomes disabled or whether they’re born that way.

“I was fortunate and blessed to continue to serve, because I have a country and an Army that valued my service and ability to contribute,” he said. “I refused to define myself by what I didn’t have, but rather by what I did have and by what’s in my heart.”

“Nobody here is perfect, but we ought to aim for perfection. We shouldn’t accept anything less than our best. This life is way too short, it’s way too precious and we all matter,” he concluded.

“Reach out to someone who’s challenged,” he said. “It’s OK to ask questions — you’ll be amazed at what you learn and how you might be inspired by how some of us get through our days.”