In keeping up with this year’s celebration of Black History Month, Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division hosted retired Army Col. Gregory Gadson to honor achievements and contributions of Black Americans to the United States Armed Forces.
A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Gadson spent 25 years as an Army officer until he retired in 2014. His massive list of accomplishments in and out of uniform range from commanding troops in every major conflict of the last two decades to playing a role in the 2012 film Battleship. Both of his parents were born and raised in the segregated south and graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., instilling in him early in life the importance of perseverance during adversity.
“Experiencing the severities of a society that was not just to them under the rules of the Jim Crow South, I’m truly proud of how they raised me, in that they didn’t pass the hate and the negative parts,” he said. “They shared the challenges, of course, but they didn’t impart the hatred upon me.”
Like many others before him, Gadson chose to serve the country through uniformed service. Searching for the opportunity to play Division I football led him to West Point, beginning his Army career. At one point in time, he was interested in attending the United States Naval Academy, who also had interest in recruiting him for his athletic ability. Thoughts of withdrawing his commitment from West Point were dispelled by his father’s advice to honor his original agreement, thus beginning his Army career.
During his 17th year on active duty, however, Gadson’s life was changed and he had to lean on the teachings of his parents as he was forced to turn tragedy into triumph.
When President George W. Bush announced the surge of forces to Baghdad, Iraq, in the mid-2000s, Gadson’s battalion was one of the six between two brigades to be called to the overseas mission. They deployed in February of 2007 and within months, Gadson was traveling from a memorial service for two Soldiers in his brigade who had lost their lives in the fight when the unthinkable happened. An improvised explosive device detonated, lifting his vehicle off the ground and ejecting him over 100 meters from the stopping point of the vehicle.
“As I laid down on the ground, I knew something was wrong with me, and I knew it was serious,” Gadson said. “I couldn’t move. My last thoughts before I lost consciousness was ‘God, I don’t want to die in this country.’ And then I was out.”
He survived the explosion, but needed over 100 units of blood and went into cardiac arrest six times within the first six hours of the attack. Four days after he was wounded, Gadson was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The next few weeks were filled with surgery after surgery, ultimately resulting in the amputation of both of his legs above the knees and losing some functionality in his right arm. At times, Gadson could not see a positive outcome to his situation and felt like giving up, but remembering his duty to his family at home and his soldiers still deployed helped him find a renewed sense of purpose.
That fall, Gadson was given the opportunity to speak to the New York Giants football team through a former West Point teammate, becoming an inspirational leader for a team who battled their own adversity after starting the season 0-2 to win Super Bowl 42 by the end of the season.
Four years later, he took command at Fort Belvoir to become the first double amputee garrison commander of a major installation in the Army. By the time of his retirement in 2014, Gadson’s name and accomplishments were well known across the military and into the civilian world, but at one point he wasn’t even sure if he’d make it out of Afghanistan.
“In the month of May 2007 alone, 131 United States service members paid the full measure, but I am here today because my team saved my life,” he said.
His team, like the rest of the military, consisted of people from all walks of life. Leading a diverse group requires the ability to relate to many cultures, a quality that Gadson said comes with understanding the history of different groups of people. Rather than allowing difference to separate, he said he has committed himself to learning about the past of others, stressing the point that Black history is American history and that American history connects everyone.
“That’s why we do observances like this, so that we can live up to the best that we can be and form a more perfect union,” Gadson said. “That is our strength, and that is our challenge.”