Featuring Colonel (Retired) Gregory D. Gadson
Words by Liesel Schmidt
Photography by Jonathan Thorpe
Special thanks to Rex Management's Noe Landini and Dave Thompson
Teamwork. It’s a word that has long been a part of Greg Gadson’s ethos, a way of life since he was a linebacker for West Point’s Black Knights. It’s been foundational to his life from days plowing through the fray of solid players on opposing teams under the bright lights of the gridiron to his career in the Army. And in 2007 when his Humvee in Iraq was hit, teamwork once again came into play as all the men inside were thrown into the air from the force of the explosion.
The event was irony at its worst. Gadson was, at the time, on the way back to headquarters after attending a memorial service for two young men that served in the same brigade who had been killed four days earlier when an IED (improvised explosive device) exploded, striking the vehicle.
“That’s when I got hit,” Gadson says. “My mindset at the time is that I am still literally trying to process the sacrifice of these young men and their families, and then, BAM! I get hit. I am thinking, 'son of a b*tch.’ I knew it was an IED.”
It may have been anywhere from 10 seconds to a full minute between the time the vehicle was struck and when Gadson realized he was laying on his back on the ground. He can’t remember. He doesn’t know.
What he does remember is the 15,000 lb. Humvee propelled from the ground. He was in the front passenger seat when the explosion sent him flying out of the vehicle, seeming as if slow motion took over.
“I’m mad. I am cursing. I’m flying through the air, hitting the ground and coming to a rolling stop on my back, I’m wounded. I cannot move, and this is serious. A thousand thoughts go through your head in a very short period of time. The last thing I said is, ‘God, I don’t want to die here,’ and then I was out.”
That’s when Gadson’s definition of “teamwork” stepped up, playing a crucial supportive role for him. Gadson believes that a team isn’t limited to a specific organization at a certain time, such as what he experienced playing football. Rather, his version is that a true team lasts forever.
The actions of his former football teammates proved his definition accurate when they learned of his injury. “One of my former teammates met me at the hospital in the green zone when he found out I was wounded,” Gadson says. “He was with me all the way to Germany. He was allowed to accompany me and fly with me.”
Gadson’s only memory of that is what others told him. Still, it doesn’t diminish his appreciation. Another football teammate met him at Walter Reed. Yet another was serving at Walter Reed as a doctor and was in charge of Gadson’s rehabilitation. “I was never alone,” he says.
Over the next weeks, Gadson’s team became even more important as he faced a challenge that he never foresaw when rushing the 50-yard line on the field all the years before.
The Humvee explosion caused massive trauma to his lower extremities, requiring the field medics to pump 129 pints of blood through his body throughout the first night. He was stabilized in Germany and then transferred Stateside to Walter Reed, where he underwent surgeries every other day to repair blood vessels and clean his wounds.
A week later, the blood vessels in Gadson’s left leg could no longer sustain blood flow. He started to bleed to death. The application of a tourniquet by a quick-thinking ICU nurse saved Gadson’s life as he was taken to the operating room for an amputation. The next day, the blood vessels in his right leg failed. Doctors tried removal of a vein from his left bicep, attempting to save the leg.
At the time, he was no longer in an induced coma and could communicate clearly with his doctors. “It was never going to work as it was intended,” Gadson says. “I had already lost the left leg. I said, ‘Get rid of it.’”
The decision was a logical one in Gadson’s mind. He believed his quality of life with two prosthetic legs would be better than with one prosthetic and a struggling biological limb. Besides, he wasn’t finished serving his country.
Because of his condition, however, Army leadership told him he could be medically retired. Gadson wasn’t interested. “I wasn’t ready to retire. I made it known to the Army that I wanted to continue to serve,” Gadson says, adding that the military was not paying him for how fast he could run, at least not at his higher rank. “I did have to go through the process and make a case that I could still contribute.” He made the point that colonels are deployable even without biological legs. They aren’t on the front line; they are evaluating information, and that isn’t accomplished by legs. His point was validated.
Unfortunately, US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq brought a significant increase in the numbers of personnel returning with serious, life-altering injuries—something that military leadership never expected.
Having gone through injury and recovery, Gadson was an obvious pick to head up the Army’s new wounded warrior group with its specific mission to provide extended care for its wounded and help those members transition to new occupations or retirement. He served two years as the director of the Army Wounded Warrior program before assuming command of Fort Belvoir in Fairfax, Virginia in 2012 and later retired from active duty in 2014.
Now, Gadson is a sought-after motivational speaker appearing at elementary and high schools as well as major universities. His story is shared with professional football players—particularly the New York Giants.
He’s also co-owner of Patriot Strategies, a government contracting firm. Together with several former West Point football teammates, he jointly owns and has launched an app with the goal of helping users identify their own cultural and ethnic biases. Aptly named CulturePop, the app’s website advertises it as “the only profile-free and personalized employee application to accelerate the inclusive and inquisitive culture.”
Noting the social upheaval of summer 2000, Gadson said the United States must come together to address the challenges of our past. “My viewpoint of our national journey is that laws and regulations can change behavior, but a man or a woman has to change their heart,” Gadson says, adding that the new app gives users the opportunity to anonymously evaluate their own biases. “We need to understand our thoughts and our perspectives. Unless we learn to appreciate our fellow person, we are not going to make significant change. We’ve got work to do, and I want to be part of that work.”
As significant as his work behind the scenes is, Gadson has also left his mark on Hollywood. Playing the role of Lt. Col. Mick Canales, a double-leg amputee whose recovery is interrupted while fighting aliens invading Earth, he became part of a team once again, working on the 2012 blockbuster movie, Battleship. Filming in 2010, it had been three years since Gadson felt the true connection of teamwork. “My favorite part of filming was working with everybody. It was not a particular scene. It was the teamwork,” Gadson says. “Teamwork is what I was missing in my life at that point. The movie gave me a team, a mission, a focus.”
Teamwork continues to be paramount in Gadson’s life, the only way that he believes the challenges of life are surmountable. From his time at West Point to life post-Army, he’s seen the importance of having a team in his corner, watching his six. And no matter the time or place, he will always be there for his team—and they, for him.