In life, there is often cruel irony. But perseverance and indomitable spirits also exist.
Army Colonel Greg D. Gadson possesses the latter two. On May 7, 2007, Iraqi insurgents provided the first.
Gadson, then commander of the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery Unit, was returning to his headquarters at Camp Liberty, Iraq, that night following a memorial service for two soldiers from his brigade who’d been killed in an IED blast. Along the route, his vehicle hit an IED. The explosion left him a bilateral, above-the-knee amputee and also injured his right arm.
That night, he fought to live and his team was right there with him. His recovery wasn’t quick or easy, but he persevered through a month and a half of inpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and then another 15 to 18 months as an outpatient while enduring additional surgeries.
Just when Gadson was wondering where his will to keep going had gone, New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin asked him to talk to his team, which appeared to be on a path leading away from the playoffs in 2007. The Giants ended the season with a Super Bowl win over the previously undefeated New England Patriots. He found a new purpose in life—to use his experiences to help and inspire others.
Eventually, he returned to active-duty status, became garrison commander of Virginia’s Fort Belvoir and retired from the Army on September 30 after more than 26 years of service. Since that day, he’s used his camera to inspire others. But even that was in jeopardy at one point. The damage to his right arm required surgeries, which came with some complications, including radial and ulnar nerve damage.
“After one of those surgeries, I wasn’t able to pick up my right wrist,” Gadson said. “I was absolutely devastated because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hold a camera again.”
In time, he’s recovered about 80 percent of his wrist flexion, so his photography is safe. “Nope! I can still push the shutter button,” he laughed.
Gadson said he’s had a camera with him ever since he bought his first at 18.
“I hate to be defined by any one thing, but anybody who knows me well knows I always have a camera with me,” he said. “I had a camera with me when I was blown up in my vehicle. I just always carry a camera. I’m always looking at the world through a lens, so to speak.”
After his injury, he realized his camera was something he wanted to get reacquainted with, not necessarily as a challenge, but as a way to express himself. He also had another realization. His view of the world had changed.
“Wearing my prosthetics doesn’t really offer me—I’m not able to be stable enough to take the pictures I want while I’m in my legs, especially taking multiple shots. Just the risk of me falling, which is there, and the damage to my equipment is, to me, prohibitive,” Gadson said, adding because he shoots from his wheelchair that he has a different take.
“My point of view clearly changed when I was injured. I’ve actually been able to gain another point of view of life. I see things that I never saw or noticed when I was on my two feet.”
Gadson recently participated in a local art festival and hopes to have the opportunity to share his artwork in galleries, and possibly sell it. “Not as a way of making a living, but as a way of recognizing my talent,” he said.
For wounded warriors who have suffered similar injuries, he has words of encouragement.
“Continue to do things that bring [you] joy. Sometimes your injuries change how you would do it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Gadson said.” It can be very therapeutic. … [Photography] has allowed me to continue to express myself. For the most part, I don’t take pictures for somebody else to like. I take them because it’s what I like.”
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.