By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 16, 2014 – An injured Iraq war veteran and the garrison commander of Fort Belvoir, Va., described the alignment of his ideals with those of Martin Luther King Jr., during the Defense Department’s Annual MLK Observance.
Army Col. Gregory D. Gadson delivered the keynote speech, discussing overcoming his own challenges, primarily from injuries he sustained in May 2007 from a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
“King never served in the military, but he commanded an Army of Americans dedicated to fulfilling our country’s highest ideal, that all men and women are created equal,” Gadson said.
The ideal, he added, was “forged in the heat of battle here at home in the struggle for civil rights and around the world in wars against tyranny and oppression.”
The colonel, a double amputee, also reminded people that seriously injured wounded warriors across the services must not only prove that they contribute, but also that they can continue to serve and should not automatically be disqualified because of their injuries.
“My injuries caused significant physical, mental and emotional changes in me -– it has not been easy,” Gadson said, adding that society alone couldn’t reintegrate him. “I had to learn to accept myself before I could contribute again.”
Gadson said he’s seen continued emphasis on the inclusion, integration and opportunities for all races in the military.
“Dr. King’s dream was not for us to define ourselves or be defined by what we have or don’t have, but to live up to the best that we can be.”
But he observed how being disabled impacts job prospects.
“If you … look at the unemployment rate for those with disabilities compared to now, there has been very little progress made in 20-plus years,” he said.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, eight out of every 10 people with disabilities are not in the labor force, which Gadson described as a sign that there is much progress to be made.
The colonel said he hopes those with severe wounds can serve as examples of overcoming and adapting, and illustrating the ideal of making contributions regardless of perceived limitations.
“The United States military is the most resilient and diverse institution in the world,” Gadson said, noting that not long ago soldiers in his condition would be medically discharged. “I’m amazed and proud to be part of a culture whose sacrifices are embodied by the Purple Heart [and] I’m also impressed by brothers and sisters who seamlessly move throughout formations without people knowing about their disabilities and challenges.”
Gadson recounted sitting at functions for an entire evening before someone would realize he was missing his legs. “At the end of the evening when I roll away, they were shocked, seeing me differently than I was,” he said.
Gadson said the key to success is the military’s diverse workforce and its commitment to change.
“Let us remember that change has never been quick, change has never been simple or without controversy, change depends on persistence, changes depends on determination,” he said.
Gadson described the U.S. military as the leader in social change.
“In this world-class force, there is no room for racism, sexism, prejudice, bullying or hazing,” Gadson said. “Do not tolerate it; do not accept it.”
(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleAFPS)
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