Standing together on stage, they make a powerful statement about resiliency and commitment– two Army colonels who both lost their legs to roadside bombings in Iraq, then returned to active duty as advocates for severely wounded soldiers.
“I just consider myself extremely blessed and fortunate that our nation and our Army… sees that we’re not defined by what we don’t have, but what we do have,” said Col. Greg Gadson, 46, the outgoing director of the Army’s Wounded Warrior (AW2) program.
At a ceremony Tuesday at Fort Belvoir, Gadson transferred leadership of the program to Col. Timothy Karcher, 45.
AW2 supports 11,000 severely wounded, ill and injured troops and veterans by assigning them an advocate to help them through their recovery and transition back to the Army or civilian life.
“I don’t want this program to be a program of dependency, but a program about independency,” Gadson said. “We’ve gotten a lot of that momentum created. Tim’s going to have to finish that up.”
Gadson could be a hard act to follow. In addition to his full time Army job, he recently starred in the movie “Battleship,” and he’s given inspirational pep talks to the New York Giants, earning him two Super Bowl rings and the title of honorary co-captain. Next week, he’ll become Fort Belvoir’s garrison commander.
Karcher is also an accomplished officer with unique talents of his own. He’s known as a true infantryman—smart, tough, with a dry sense of humor. He claims he tells teenagers that he lost his legs because he was texting while driving, but denies a rumor circulating among his soldiers that he can break a knife in half with his bare hands.
Like Gadson, Karcher hopes to bring his own experience to bear as he makes decisions affecting severely wounded warriors.
“I’ve walked a mile in their shoes with plastic and carbon fiber feet,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be in a facility where folks are trying to help you get better, you’re trying to get better, and it’s just a long road.”
Advances in medicine mean more troops are surviving life-changing physical injuries, but many more are suffering the invisible wounds of war, and they will likely need support for years to come.
“In terms of the population that the AW2 program supports, better than 65 percent of those are what we call wounds above the shoulders – post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury… as a primary injury,” Gadson said.
And those numbers don’t even tell the whole story. “For instance myself and Tim, we also suffer from post-traumatic stress,” Gadson added. “We probably had a little TBI just from being unconscious and the blood loss that we had. But they’re not listed as our primary injury, obviously, because of our amputations.”
For Karcher, caring for other soldiers is a sacred duty, and he calls his new role at AW2 a “humbling opportunity.”
“This is where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “To be able to walk into another soldier’s hospital room and say, ‘This is all going to buff out. You’re going to be fine. And we’re going to be with you.’”