In 2006, Army Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans was checking on troops at a remote location. At the time, she was in charge of all Army ground forces in Afghanistan, with a distinguished 27-year Army career and tremendous experience. Suddenly she and her team were faced with a barrage of mortar fire. One of the explosives landed close by, and she was slammed into a concrete barrier. Two other soldiers near her were killed instantly. She survived.
Transported to a military hospital in Germany, she soon learned the extent of her injuries. Among the many she had sustained, she was rendered totally deaf, with a brain injury, shrapnel wounds, and PTSD. She was in intensive rehab for 18 long months. But over time, Evans has rebounded to live a full and highly active life. She remains “Unbroken,” which is also the name of her fellow wounded warriors’ 4-person extreme sports team. This is her story.
Her memories of that fateful day, when her life so abruptly changed, are still clear today. As Gretchen Evans recalls, “It was near the end of our deployment, and I was flying in a helicopter, checking on troops. We landed, and I exited the helicopter, and it lifted off to land in a safer place until I was ready to leave.
“I’d been on the ground less than 10 minutes when mortars started incoming like rain. We immediately sent out a Quick Reaction Force to neutralize the enemy that was firing at us, but in the meantime, I was standing in the open, yelling to my troops to get inside the fortified bunkers for protection. Before I could get in a bunker myself, a round landed to my right and detonated, killing two soldiers standing next to me. The force of the blast threw me toward one of the concrete bunkers, which I hit headfirst.
“I was Medevac’d to Bagram Air Force Base and then to Landstuhl, where I was put into a coma for a couple of days while the doctors assessed my injuries. When I awoke, they told me I was deaf, had a traumatic brain injury, and other internal and external injuries. I knew right then that my career in the military was over. I had no Plan B.”
Before her injuries, Gretchen had been a successful senior military intelligence analyst and paratrooper, serving in dangerous conflict zones around the world including Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Over the course of her career, she earned many medals and awards, from the Bronze Star to a Presidential Unit Citation Medal, several Global War on Terrorism ribbons, and six Meritorious Service Medals.
Throughout her nearly three decades in the service, Evans worked her way up to Command Sergeant Major, the highest rank an enlisted soldier can achieve—a promotion she received in 2001. By 2006, in her last mission, she was responsible for the security and personnel on all bases and forwarding operation bases in Afghanistan and oversaw more than 30,000 ground troops.
Evans grew up in Abilene, Texas, one of three siblings. While she was not raised in a military family, her father was a WWII vet. After high school, she went to college at Texas Tech, but soon found tuition costs to be a difficult financial hurdle. She decided to join the Army where she could continue her education, with the military covering her tuition as a benefit, after a four-year service commitment. But a funny thing happened along the way: she fell in love with the Army. “After six months, I realized I had found my calling.”
It was in Afghanistan that she met her future husband, Robert, a Navy captain, and senior chaplain for all military serving in the region. Before getting involved, the two worked together professionally, dealing with the death of soldiers: counseling, gathering their personal effects, consoling families, and helping people overcome war-related traumas. Then Capt. Evans was recalled to Washington, D.C., and the two could only correspond by email. Bob soon expressed his romantic interest. Not long after that, Gretchen was summoned to D.C. for a briefing with top generals about the situation in Afghanistan. That evening, over a romantic dinner, Bob asked her to marry him, and she accepted.
Six weeks later, back on duty, Gretchen’s life as she knew it came to a screeching halt, with that incoming mortar attack. Bob was never notified, and she couldn’t let him know. Dead silence ensued. “When someone in top command is injured, no communications are allowed, since the enemy might get wind of it,” she explains today. It wasn’t until she knew the details of her damage that she wrote to him, explaining what had happened and that he didn’t have to stick to any commitment. His response was immediate: “I’m with you!”
Today, the devoted couple lives in Brunswick, mostly because Robert went to Bowdoin and had always wanted to come back to Maine. Gretchen adds that she loves this area for all its great outdoor opportunities. Among her many athletic abilities, she has run 40 marathons. She and Bob regularly go hiking and kayaking, and Gretchen pursues her extreme adventure races.
Evans’ transition from military to civilian life was very difficult. She had spent her entire adult life in the Army. Her heart was broken, not only due to her injuries but also to the sudden loss of her military family, her team, the fellowship, and the mission she had found and loved—the whole military experience. “I was in a very dark place.” She was lost, sad, and hopeless until she found her way into “No Barriers Warriors,” a non-profit organization serving veterans with disabilities from all branches of the military and all eras of service.
Evans sent in her application to No Barriers, but she anticipated rejection, due to the extent of her injuries and a PTSD diagnosis. Much to her surprise, she was accepted and found the healing environment of her first program with them to be life changing. “Before, during, and after, No Barriers provided me and my group with powerful tools to replace hopelessness, not only with hope but with a renewed passion for living life to the fullest.”
She embraced the opportunity to learn lip reading, rather than bemoan her hearing loss. She became an accomplished lip reader. She has devices that detect vibrations. And she has special equipment on her phone that turns words into sentences so she can see them (much as smart phones will let you dictate your words into a text message).
Another important part of her renewed vitality rests with her “hearing dogs.” Her first, Aura, was a full-time guardian against her deafness, thanks to intense training from AmericanVetDogs. Aura is a highly trained Labrador who functioned as her vital “ears.” “Aura went everywhere with me—hiking or running or any outdoor activity, alerting me when a bike rider is behind me, or someone is passing me on the right. At home, she would let me know when the doorbell or phone rings. If I was driving my car and an ambulance siren blared, she’d tap me on the shoulder to let me know. She was also the first hearing dog that AmVetDogs ever trained. I had to have a very active dog, and Aura was just crazy enough to fit the bill.”
But now, as Aura is slowing down, she has been retrained to help Bob with his own PTSD. Gretchen, meanwhile, recently got Rusty, a young black Labrador with a gentle disposition, lots of energy, and enough discipline for the job—which involves a range of activities, strenuous and otherwise. She says that these dogs helped save her life—not just from possible accidents but as compassionate and loyal companions. “Aura gave me back my independence, and she gave me hope. Now I have Rusty, who is robust, whimsical, and a fabulous hearing dog.”
Gretchen has healed herself with much effort. Part of that is her proactive effort to reach out to her fellow wounded vets. She is on the board of several veterans’ and educational organizations. In Maine, she helps fundraise for MaineVet2Vet, which pairs veterans together so they have a “battle buddy” and do not isolate or succumb to depression. She’s an ambassador for No Barriers.
She frequently speaks to veteran groups, and she is now part of “Women Veterans Speak,” a national speaker’s bureau. She is, no surprise, a highly sought-after motivational speaker. She has given presentations to Prudential, the Baltimore Orioles, Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Food Lion, and two organizations dear to her heart—No Barriers USA and America’s VetDogs.
“I thought I sucked at public speaking, but I just talk from the heart,” Gretchen says. Her story also resonates with civilians, not just veterans. She talks about leadership, teamwork, resilience, grit, and selfless service—all in a down-to-earth manner, a slight Texas twang laced with salty phrases, and lots of humor. She gets rave reviews from her audiences.
Gretchen is also one of the four female combat vets in a play created by Jonathan Wei for the Telling Project. Called We Went to War, the play is a loosely scripted theater piece in which the women each tell their stories in powerful prose. They have already played the Guthrie Theater in Milwaukee and the Library of Congress. This October, they will perform at the National Press Club in D.C.
She continues to pursue her passion for extreme sports, with fellow injured veterans. In 2019, Gretchen and her “Unbroken” team signed up to compete in “The World’s Toughest Race”—a 671 km 7-day endurance race held in Fiji. They were the first all mixed-abilities (she prefers that term to handicapped or disabled) team to participate in this world-famous competition. There were 66 teams of four. Each team also had an additional crew member who didn’t participate in the race but who was there at the end of each leg of the race, to be of help.
“Our biggest challenge was that we’d never done an adventure race before, and we had a huge learning curve. Once we got to Fiji . . . we had to develop ways to communicate with me in the dark. Almost every event required us to plan so our team could do the tasks despite our injuries.” While “Unbroken” didn’t finish the grueling course (nor did approximately 30 other teams), they put up a good fight. You can watch the whole race on Amazon Prime’s World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji.
At 5 feet 2 inches and 98 pounds, Gretchen Evans may be petite, with a lean wiry frame and a wide grin, but she has a commanding presence. And her heart, courage, and determination are boundless. This fall, CSM Evans will be honored again, as she is inducted into the U.S. Veterans Hall of Fame, in recognition of her outstanding and meritorious service within the United States Army and her community.