Who would have thought that a high school wrestling injury would have given me a glimpse of future challenges in my life? Certainly not me as I grew up in Pryor, Oklahoma.
I was 15 and in the middle of a wrestling match when I sustained an injury to my left knee that required reconstructive surgery. That injury caused me to question my future physical and mental abilities. Since I was such a young man, I had to rely on my father as role model for how to live with an injury.
My father, William E. “Gene” Gibson, served in the United States Navy as a SeaBee during the Vietnam War. His disabilities affected his ability to work and perform normal daily tasks—especially participating in sports with me. Little did I know then how much my relationship with my father would help me overcome the most challenging time in my life.
Enlisting in the Marine Corps under an open contract left my career as a Marine in the balance until the last week of boot camp when I learned my wish to become an infantryman would come true. After receiving my Eagle, Globe, and Anchor and making a quick trip home, I reported to Marine Combat Training, School of Infantry at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. While there I passed indoctrination for Marine Reconnaissance and received orders to 1st Reconnaissance Battalion (Recon).
I deployed with B Company, 1st Recon Battalion in support of Operation Desert Storm/Shield and saw my first combat action in the Al Wafra oil fields and the area around what is now known as Ali Al Salem Air Base. That was in November 1990.
Almost exactly two years later—October 1992—I deployed to Somalia during Operation Restore Hope as part of a reconnaissance platoon supporting Regimental Combat Team 7. I didn’t redeploy until March 1993.
Nearly 15 years of training all over the world would lead me to the tour that changed my life forever—and for the better.
Early in 2006, I deployed to Iraq as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller to support Iraqi Army forces. On May 16, while on a foot patrol in the Mulaab district of Ramadi with my team—Lightening 42—of Marines, Navy SEALs, and Iraqi Special Operations forces, Iraqi forces conducting house-to-house searches were attacked.
My group had the ability to set up a missile shot into the enemy’s position. While maneuvering to coordinate the shot, one of the Iraqi soldiers was shot in the hip. We directed suppression fire in the direction of the shot allowing the injured Iraqi to be dragged into a courtyard for medical aid.
While all of this was happening, I directed one of my Marines—bullets impacting all around him—to take cover and pushed him to a small pile of rubble. Turning toward the enemy I returned fire while directing fire of the joint team. That’s when a sniper’s bullet went through my left knee.
An air evacuation got me to the combat surgical hospital in Camp Taqadum, Iraq, where the doctors determined the damage to my already once-reconstructed knee was severe enough that they needed to amputate my leg above the knee. The next day I was transferred to Balad for evacuation to a stateside hospital.
I arrived at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, early May 19. After about a month of surgeries and hospital living it was on to Brooke Army Medical Center on Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for follow-on care and amputee prosthetic therapy.
There I was introduced to running, swimming, biking, and snow skiing and a physical therapist pushed me to regain the physical abilities I had prior to my amputation. I advanced in swimming and running, completing my first 5K road race in November 2006. By the end of the following year, I’d competed in more than 12 races, including two half Ironman triathalons and a three-day adventure race.
This competition provided me the confidence and ability I needed to overcome every known obstacle an above-knee (AK) amputee faces. The greatest hurdle would be returning to ground combat operation. No AK had ever accomplished the feat until I deployed in January 2008. That tour was the most important of my career, not because I was the first, but because it changed the perception of how an AK could serve. The media attention my actions received inspired other amputees to continue service and the military changed their policies on allowing AKs to redeploy.
That deployment was important for another reason as well. While deployed to Camp Fallujah I was selected to become the first enlisted Congressional fellow to the U.S. House of Representatives. The following January, I was assigned to the ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to advise all members about the needs of wounded warriors and transitioning service members. During my tour on Capitol Hill, I had the opportunity to advise many members of Congress, giving them a front-row view of the recovery of wounded warriors and how to support their needs.
It seemed my time on the Hill would be my greatest accomplishment until I served as a special assistant to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Juan Garcia. For nearly two years, I advised Secretary Garcia on the hiring needs of today’s wounded warriors and transitioning service members.
I retired from the Marine Corps on August 5, 2011, and I am continuing to mentor other wounded warriors on how to pursue a better life—whether in or out of military service.
Little did I know when I was 15 that my father’s actions would inspire me not only to push myself, but inspire so many others to push themselves beyond their limitations.