Decorated Veteran’s Injuries Prompt New Mission to Help Others
Gretchen Evans, 62, says she continues to serve after leaving the military
Under heavy mortar fire in Afghanistan, Gretchen Evans was thrown headfirst into a bunker while trying to get her troops to safety. Days later she woke up with a traumatic brain injury and permanent hearing loss, ending her 27-year military career as one of the most decorated women veterans in U.S. history. Despite these setbacks, she persevered and applied her unwavering determination to civilian life, where she now serves as a mentor, coach and community activist.
Evans enlisted in 1979, at 19 years old and just 5 feet tall, with the intent of supporting herself and learning new skills.
“But very soon I knew that serving in the military was going to be a career for me,” she says. “I loved the camaraderie, the structure, the sense of mission and purpose, and that I was contributing to something greater than myself.”
After basic training, Evans became a counterintelligence agent and learned to speak German and Italian fluently. Her small stature helped her to go unnoticed as a spy in counterterrorism operations throughout Italy, Central America and the Middle East. She also undertook leadership roles in multiple combat engagements and was deployed in many capacities, including as a paratrooper.
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By the end of her career, Evans had worked her way up to command sergeant major, the highest rank an enlisted soldier in the Army can achieve. In 2006, during her final deployment, she oversaw security and personnel for all U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, which included 30,000 ground troops.
Navigating the military as a woman
“As a female command sergeant major, it was challenging because there were not many of us, and finding role models was difficult,” Evans says. “What did work for me was that when I encountered good leadership, I worked hard to take those traits and apply them to my own leadership style. Gender was not a factor in this process.”
Although she encountered challenges along the way, Evans focused on setting a good example for her soldiers and other women in the military: “I knew I had to work hard, exceed expectations, be better than good, and attempt to let my work speak for itself.”
Naturally, she was delighted when all career fields opened for women. But part of her wished she’d had the same opportunities during her time of service.
“Still, through my actions, I hope that I was among those women who pioneered the opportunity for military women of today and tomorrow to compete for any position they desire,” she says. “I believe there is still progress to be made. But every day I am watching women attain leadership roles that were not possible years ago. Such advances are very positive. I hope it continues.”
Evans says the highlight of her career was watching soldiers she had trained and mentored succeed in their career goals.
An unplanned transition to civilian life
After returning to the U.S. from Afghanistan, Evans faced challenges in reintegrating into civilian life and finding a job as she struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Despite her injuries, Evans considers herself someone with mixed abilities rather than disabled. She taught herself to read lips after losing her hearing.
“I spent almost my entire adult life in the military, and it is a very different lifestyle than most people encounter. Learning to navigate the civilian lifestyle took some real effort on my part,” she says. “Again, there were not many examples to follow for transitioning to civilian life.”
She credits numerous veterans service organizations for helping her assimilate back to the civilian world, including the Wounded Warrior Project, No Barriers and America’s VetDogs, from which she received her own service dog.
Today, Evans, 62, is engaged locally with organizations like Vet2Vet Maine and the American Legion and nationally through programs offered through the Wounded Warrior Project.
She also founded and formed an adaptive racing team, Team Unbroken, and competed in the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, a long multiday expedition that was filmed and is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
“We continue to race. But more importantly, we speak nationwide about our personal and team story. Everyone on the team has a life-altering injury, illness or trauma with which they live,” she says. “In the telling of our stories and demonstrating through competition, our hope is to inspire people with wounds visible or invisible to not let their injuries, illnesses or traumas define who they are or what they can accomplish.”
Since 2020, Team Unbroken has competed in more than 10 races worldwide to raise awareness for athletes with mixed abilities.
“You are never too old to try something new. I think the beauty of aging is that you have wisdom and know that the world can offer adventure, knowledge and happiness,” she says. “Find what makes you happy — and do that while staying open to attempting new things to see if they increase your joy of living. Live well and incorporate a way to give back to others.”
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.