FORT BELVOIR, Virginia –
“Every single one of us has a challenge and if you don’t, you will.”
Retired Army Col. Gregory D. Gadson reminded employees that everybody has challenges – visible and invisible – and to strive to extend dignity and respect to everyone every single day.
Gadson, a bilateral above-the-knee amputee, was the guest speaker during a National Disability Awareness Month Observance at the McNamara Headquarters Complex, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Oct. 16.
“Throughout the Department of Defense we take time to recognize our diversity,” he said. “Often times, when we stop and think about it, this is not about just this month. It is really what we should live every day. Whether it’s ethnic, racial or a disability.”
A charismatic, decorated 26-year military veteran, Gadson held the room’s attention as he recalled how he overcame challenges from a life-changing, tragic incident 12 years earlier. As commander of the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery, in Baghdad, Iraq, Gadson was returning from a memorial service for two soldiers in his unit when his military vehicle encountered an improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb.
“I was in a four vehicle patrol heading back to headquarters,” he told the audience. “The blast lifted my 15,000 pound Humvee off the road and ejected me. I remember flying through the air and coming to a rolling stop on my back. I knew it was serious. I knew I was hurt.”
He recounts the extensiveness of his injuries, the 129 units of blood he needed to initially survive, the transfer to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and surgery after surgery. Despite ultimately losing both legs above the knees and the normal use of his right arm and hand, Gadson recovered, remained on active duty and became the garrison commander of Fort Belvoir before retiring.
“I don’t like the word ‘disabilities,’” he said. “I don’t think of myself as disabled. Sure, I have challenges but every day I get up just like all of you. So how am I disabled if I do everything that you do, with less? Maybe you’re disabled?”
He chuckled, along with the crowd, but his point is made and his focus shifts from his disabilities to hope and perspective.
“I remember wanting to quit. I didn’t want to live a life like this. I couldn’t see what my life had in store. There was no vision when all I had was the use of one of my limbs,” Gadson said. “But in that pity and tears, I found out that I wasn’t a quitter. That wasn’t my character.”
He talks about how he found his new sense of self.
“I rededicated myself to being present. I rededicated myself to being my best,” he said. “We are all going to have challenges. That’s just life. Let’s be present and not hold on to yesterday. We can’t relive or change the past.”
Asking “why me?” doesn’t help, he said. Define yourself by what you do have rather than what you don’t, he encouraged.
“That’s what unencumbered me. That is what allowed me to move forward,” he said. “Do I miss my legs? No, I don’t think about it. I’m the man I am today because of what I’ve been through.”
Gadson asked the audience to take the time to connect with someone who is challenged.
“Find out what it’s like. It’s okay to ask questions,” he said. “You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn and how you might be inspired by how some of us get through our days.”
After the roaring standing ovation, Defense Logistics Agency Energy Commander Air Force Brig. Gen. Albert Miller thanked Gadson for his inspirational speech.
“I am leaving here today accepting your challenges – to be present, be my best and appreciate and reach out to those who have challenges,” Miller said. “I am proud to say that in this organization we do a good job at that, but it is always nice to be reminded.”