By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2014 – During the Pentagon’s annual commemoration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., a combat veteran wounded in Iraq will explain the inspiration he drew from the civil rights leader.
Army Col. Greg Gadson, garrison commander of Fort Belvoir, Va., said he will spread King’s message of overcoming prejudices and challenges when he speaks at the Pentagon event, which begins at 9 a.m. Jan. 16. The observance will air live on the Pentagon Channel.
On May 7, 2007, Gadson was returning from a memorial service for two fellow soldiers when he was struck by a roadside bomb. Everything changed, he said in an interview with American Forces Press Service.
Gadson lost both legs and suffered serious injury to his right arm, but, seven years later, said he says he can do without the term “wounded warrior.”
“At some point, you have to stop being a wounded warrior,” the colonel said. “Like graduating or getting a promotion or accomplishing anything, it’s tempered in time, so don’t allow yourself to be defined as a wounded warrior, because then you’re always wounded.”
And just as King envisioned decades ago, Gadson said, he wants people to know that prejudices and challenges are things to overcome.
The Chesapeake, Va., native said that in addition to King’s vision, his own family’s story inspired the speech he’ll deliver. His parents lived in the segregated South and picked cotton to eke out a living.
“It has been inspirational for me, not just my relatives, but what many people have had to overcome for me to have the opportunities that I have,” Gadson said. “It’s that effort [and] perseverance that has been a part of my life, helped me reach down and overcome challenges.”
The colonel said King’s legacy not only inspires but also motivates him. “I’ve tried to recognize the progress that has been made, but also recognize that we have a responsibility to carry on his vision.”
Gadson is one of the first military members to use a high-tech prosthetic knee that allows greater mobility and a more natural gait. He played football for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and after his injuries, made his acting debut in the 2012 science-fiction movie “Battleship.”
The colonel said his role as a commander and his frequent visits to medical facilities to spend time with injured service members surprise a great many of the people he encounters.
“People in uniform or people I meet in the streets ask me what I do, and they’re surprised that I’m allowed to stay in the military,” he said.
He said he encourages optimism and often reminds wounded veterans that the very ability to communicate with him typically means the worst is over.
“We all have our challenges, and it’s not just the visible ones, but the invisible ones as well,” Gadson noted. “On a personal level, we all have our prejudices that we have to overcome.”
But the colonel explained the irony of his fight now being on “a different level” from that of King’s.
“Certainly, we have to recognize the military cannot be made up of people in my condition, or it wouldn’t get the job done, but there’s enough capacity for people like me to serve,” he said. “Dr. King reminded us that we shouldn’t define ourselves by our race [or] our social status — our character is what we should be defined by.”
And while the colonel said it’s tough to hide his condition and its associated societal perceptions, his effort to be of service will continue even after he retires from the military.
“I want to continue to contribute to my community,” he said. “I want to find something that excites me and makes me want to get up and fight hard.”
He admitted to not yet knowing exactly where that path may lead, but one lesson, he said, remains in the forefront since his recovery.
“I’ll try to stay in the present and do the best I can every day,” he said. “That, in itself, will create the opportunities in the future.”
(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleAFPS)
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