Col. Gregory D. Gadson answering questions from the fourth, fifth and sixth graders.
Photos by Rachel Karnes
Movie buffs might know him from his role in the 2011 blockbuster “Battleship” as Mick, the gruff wounded vet who helps save the world from aliens, but to the students at Sangster Elementary School in Springfield, he is known as real-life hero Col. Gregory D. Gadson, Ft. Belvoir garrison commander and Purple Heart recipient.
Col. Gadson, who lost both legs in 2007 as the result of an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq, spoke to Sangster students on June 13 as part of the school’s Field Day activities. The Chesapeake, Va. native and 1989 West Point graduate inspired Sangster’s fourth through sixth graders with a message of duty, teamwork and perseverance. “Don’t think about being the best,” Col. Gadson stressed. “Think about doing your best.”
“When I lost my legs, I had to find out who I was,” Col. Gadson said of the roadside bombing that cost him both his legs while leaving others completely unscathed. “I learned that I was not my legs, and my legs weren’t me. How you look is not important. What’s important is in our hearts, our souls and our heads.”
Col. Gadson, a former West Point linebacker, encouraged the students to take advantage of opportunities available in what he called “the greatest country on the planet.”
“This life is precious. You only get to do it once. The real challenge is to make the most of it every day.” He also urged the young audience to think about things greater than themselves. “Life’s not about getting, it’s about giving. If you give, you’ll get so much more back. Life’s not just about you. It’s about your school, your team, your community and your nation.”
When asked if he would go back and change what happened, Col. Gadson responded without hesitation, “I wouldn’t change a thing. My injuries came as a result of leading soldiers in service to our country. Our experiences make us who we are. Adversity helps us grow, learn, and prosper.”
Students were also eager to hear about Col. Gadson’s movie role. Before filming “Battleship,” he had no experience as an actor, joking that he “never even played a tree in a school play.” He recalled the hard work and long hours that went into making the movie, and while he stopped short of calling his time on the set “fun,” he again stressed the importance of teamwork. “The best thing was being part of a team. The grips, the wardrobe and makeup people … it was teamwork that made the movie come together.”
Accompanied by Col. Gadson were fellow Purple Heart recipients Capt. Matt Staton (ret.) and Sgt. Brian Beem, who echoed the colonel’s message as they visited individual classrooms. Sgt. Beem spoke of overcoming adversity and revealed that he only took up skiing after he lost a leg in Iraq in 2006. Added Capt. Staton, “It’s important to think about people for their abilities rather than for their disabilities.”
The Wounded Warriors were hosted by the school’s Military Spouses’ Group, a support network and outreach group for military families at Sangster. “It was amazing to see the soldiers interact with the students at Sangster,” said Event Coordinator Juliet Johnson. “They truly inspired us with their positive attitude and ability to embrace life no matter what challenges they may face.”
Military Spouses’ Group President Stacy Cheshire agreed, saying, “I was so inspired by Col. Gadson and all of the speakers for sharing their personal stories. That extended hand from Ft. Belvoir to the military families outside its gates makes a large community feel smaller and more tightly knit.”