For Gretchen Evans, Command Sergeant Major (CSM), Retired, the U.S. Army has been her career, her passion, and her lifelong commitment. In command of all 30,000 ground troops in Afghanistan, she was the highest-ranking enlisted army soldier in the battle, until she and her men were slammed with a surprise mortar attack in 2006, which killed the two soldiers next to her.
Gretchen suffered grievous wounds, including numerous shrapnel hits, internal injuries, traumatic brain injury, and was stricken stone deaf from the blast. Later, she was also diagnosed with serious PTSD. In an instant her 27-year highly decorated military career came to an end.
“I felt I had lost everything,” she said. “I was immobilized, helpless, and helpless to help myself.”
Her long recovery was not just physical. She learned lip reading skills as part of her rehabilitation after the blast, but she realized she had to put herself back together mentally. Much of her support came from the counseling of Chief of Mental Health Services Bekh Bradley, a psychologist at the VA in Atlanta, who had read her military records prior to her first session. His immediate words to her were abrupt and candid, “I cannot un-XXXX 27 years of trauma, Sergeant Major, in six weeks [the prescribed protocol]. You are going to be with me for a while.”
And so began her healing. He listened. He asked, “Can you tell me what it feels like?” And he suggested she write down her experiences, because writing comes from a different part of the brain. “He was the first to open the box. I had to do it or I would have killed myself.” Therapy typically lasts 12 weeks or less, but Gretchen saw Dr. Bradley off and on for nearly two years.
Her most important support after therapy came from her “hearing dog,” Aura, intensely trained by America’s VETDOGS, who gave Gretchen back her independence, and her hope. “She gave me meaning and drive. At my lowest point, her unequivocal love, devotion, and sense of duty saved my life in moments of ultimate despair. Aura literally saved my life.“
A third support leg on her journey of healing came from her participation in the No Barriers program, serving veterans with disabilities, where she re-honed her skills and sense of teamwork. It was through No Barriers that she established her renewed passion.
“I embraced their mantra: What is within me is stronger than anything in my way.” Today, CSM Evans is a vital, energetic woman – still a soldier in her heart – who spends much of her time involved in a number of efforts, mostly focused on educating the public and helping her fellow vets. She speaks extensively about leadership, grit, and resilience to audiences, both military and business groups.
She runs marathons with disabled vets. She raises funds for many veteran groups, including Vet2Vet Maine, which helps men and women connect with others who’ve served in combat as “battle buddies.” She serves on Governor Mills’ military advisory committee. Gretchen has also taught a Zoom class at Bowdoin and would like to become more involved locally and in her adopted state of Maine. The list goes on. At 61, she is feisty, funny, resilient, and in top shape.
Two of her recent efforts are unique. First, Gretchen has written a book, Leading from the Front, which draws from the many combat and life experiences that she wrote at Dr. Bradley’s gentle insistence. It is candid, and often graphically intense. She calls it “gritty and raw.” Others might describe it as a cross between All Quiet on the Western Front and Catch-22. While she thought these writings were private and just to help herself, her husband Bob, a Navy chaplain who had served alongside Gretchen in Afghanistan, strongly encouraged her to put some of them together for publication.
“It was never intended to be a book, it was therapy.” But Bob thought it was powerful and advised her, that “…if I was ever comfortable releasing any of my writings, I should do it.” In 2018, she self-published her book, now available on Amazon, and hopes it may get wider distribution.
Another unique project is her participation in a live theater piece, She Went to War, which has played in several venues, including the Library of Congress. It was created by The Telling Project, a national nonprofit performing arts effort that uses theater to deepen civilian and community understanding of military veterans’ experiences. In the play, which is virtually unscripted, four women vets, including Gretchen, tell their stories on stage with only minimum structure. None are professional actors.
“Gretchen is a natural. A compelling performer, who is emotionally present on stage,” says founder and director Jonathan Wei, who adds that it was an honor to work with all four women.
“It’s one thing to go to a play and see a bunch of actors tell a story. It’s another to see a bunch of non-actors tell their own stories. Especially when those stories are so powerful and authentic,” said one reviewer. “[It] made me painfully aware of the extent to which my ideas about soldiers and military life are dominated by simplistic (and often extremely masculinized) stereotypes drawn from popular culture. But what struck me most sharply was realizing just how little thought many of us devote to the individuals who make up our armed services,” said another theater critic, commenting on their successful run at the famed Guthrie Theater in Milwaukee. Plans are to run a sequel, She Came Home, in the near future, Covid-dependent, with the same four women.
As if Gretchen was not busy enough, her scheduled events extend well into the future. For one, she and Bob will be honored guests at the Army-Navy game in December. But perhaps her biggest honor was to be installed in the US Veterans Hall of Fame on October 30.
Sitting in the cozy living room of her Brunswick home last month, perched on the fireplace hearth with her two hearing dogs sprawled on the carpet beside her, she modestly talked about all this. (Aura is now older and helps Bob with his PTSD. Rusty, a hefty young black lab, is Gretchen’s new service dog.) Her enthusiasm and energy are compelling. Nothing seems to slow her down. But she admits to loving where she and Bob are living now.
“This is my first permanent home, our forever home, after more than 27 moves. We’ve ‘stacked arms’ here,” she said, referencing a military term for ending a mission and literally putting down battle rifles in a stacked formation, and also slang for coming home.
For more of Gretchen’s story, see the September, 2021, issue of Maine Women.