By Patrick BuffettMay 22, 2013
FORT LEE, Va. (May 22, 2013) -- Recalling a simple prayer -- "God, don't let me die in this country" -- that he whispered before losing consciousness, Col. Gregory D. Gadson said he now believes the May 2007 bomb attack that resulted in the amputation of both of his legs was a test of faith. He also admitted that he "wouldn't change a thing" about his life today.
Gadson was the featured speaker at an Army Logistics University Prayer Breakfast Friday morning in the Bunker Hall cafeteria. The audience included hundreds of students from the officer and NCO development courses at ALU, as well as senior ranking installation staff members like John Hall, university president, and Col. Rodney Edge, garrison commander, among others.
Now serving as the garrison commander at Fort Belvoir and director of the Army Wounded Warrior Program, Gadson said he is often asked to share the story about the improvised explosive device encounter that nearly took his life while deployed to Iraq as a battalion commander. The outcome is particularly interesting as the 24-year field artillery officer describes how the experience taught him important lessons about spiritual resilience and strength of character.
"We were heading back to our headquarters … it was in the evening, probably around (9:30 p.m.) or so," Gadson said. "I had just attended a memorial service for two Soldiers from a sister battalion who had been killed in action a few days earlier. I know my heart was heavy at the time. I remember thinking about the families of those gentlemen. I wondered what their thoughts were in the moments before they passed away and what a heavy price they paid while serving their country."
The explosion ejected Gadson from the vehicle. He said he instantly knew what was happening because he had already experienced a previous IED encounter.
"It's almost like time slows down, and you have these crystal clear thoughts," he recalled. "My initial reaction wasn't something along the lines of 'how dare these SOBs' and a few other choice words. I also remember thinking, 'why is this happening to me?'"
Gadson said he hit the ground and continued rolling for several more feet. When he looked up, he saw his command vehicle slowly sputtering forward until it stopped. He said he was unaware of the extent of his injuries, but realized it was probably significant because he was on his back and couldn't move. Between shock and blood loss, he was slowly losing consciousness.
"Thinking about my life before this incident, I guess I would describe it as being one of a guilty Christian. I believed in God, but I'm not sure I knew or really appreciated how strong my faith was. I probably swore a lot more than I should and did some things I knew weren't right. Let's just say there was a whole lot of room for me to improve. But at that moment, God was in my heart and I asked him to not let me die here."
A few minutes later, the battalion's acting command sergeant major was at Gadson's side and began resuscitating him. The unit medic arrived and applied tourniquets to his severely injured legs. Both measures, doctors said later, clearly saved the colonel's life. Further proof of that was the 129 pints of blood that were still required to stabilize Gadson before he was medevaced from the field hospital.
"When I arrived at Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md.) on May 11, my legs were still intact but very badly damaged," Gadson said. "After about a week, they had to take my left leg in order to save my life. I almost lost my right leg the next day, but they pulled a vein from my left arm and saved it. I started to process what was happening to me and knew at that point that my right leg was never going to work again. So, I made the decision for them to take my right leg at about week two. That's when they also discovered that my right arm and elbow were broken and would require several surgeries to repair."
As anyone would expect, it took a considerable amount of time to cope with the mounting seriousness of his injuries. Gadson said his wife frequently made reference to passages in the book of Job in the Bible where the question "why do the righteous suffer" is often asked. In the end, Job learns that he appreciated too many things on a superficial level and that created the chasm for trouble to enter his life.
"I began to realize that this too was a test of my faith," Gadson observed. "We all experience it to some degree every day; some tests are hard and others are easy. And we talk about 'leaps of faith' … the sort of thing that Soldiers share because they're always going to be there for each other. That's what our faith in God is. It's not something we can really put our hands on, we can't grab it or put it in our pocket, but when you work on that faith and build that faith you just know it's there.
"I really didn't understand or appreciate my own faith," he continued. "It was a lot stronger than I realized. So, during times of distress, I knew to ask God to save me. Deep down, I knew my life was going to be better with two prosthetics than having one and another leg that didn't work. I certainly can't tell you why, I just knew. And finally, I knew that my legs were not going to grow back. I had to accept on faith what had happened and how I would face this challenge in the future. It was then that I knew I could move forward without fear.
"I can tell you I asked those obvious questions -- why me, why this, why didn't I die, why did I have to lose my legs? And there's no answer I could ever come up with. But I can also tell you that I wouldn't change a thing because this is my life, this is my journey. I accept that."
Gadson concluded with the following observation: "Our true character is not seen in good times, but in the bad times." That's where individuals have an opportunity to grow and find out who they are, he said. The Army once promoted the slogan "Be All You Can Be," and it emphasized the importance of Soldiers putting their best foot forward every day.
"That's the challenge, and I can tell you that I've fallen short of it more times than I've lived up to it. My message is to make the most of every opportunity, of every day, so when you have that IED in your life, whether it's a death or a divorce or injury or illness, you're prepared. Your faith, your mind, your soul are ready to face that challenge. That's what resiliency is truly about."