One of the most decorated women veterans in U.S. history, Gretchen Evans, 61, was honored with the Pat Tillman Award for Service at ESPN’s ESPY awards Wednesday night, recognizing her strong connection to sports and service to others.
“I was speechless, humbled, then I felt a sense of wanting to do more for people, to somehow live up to the legacy Pat Tillman left behind: Others before self,” said Evans. “Pat Tillman was an athlete, a scholar and a soldier. He lived his beliefs, values and ethos. I want to try and do the same.”
Tillman left a lucrative career playing football for the Arizona Cardinals in 2002 to become an Army Ranger. He was killed in 2004 as a result of friendly fire in Afghanistan at age 27.
Evans’ own military career ended after she faced heavy mortar fire in Afghanistan and 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. However, through a lot of hard work, she carried her tenacity forward into her civilian life, where she now serves as a mentor and coach to other veterans involved in athletics and serves as a community activist for veterans issues.
A difficult transition to civilian life
After serving 27 years in the military, Evans struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after returning to the U.S. from Afghanistan and found it difficult to reintegrate into civilian life and find a job.
“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 said. “There were not many examples to follow for transitioning to civilian life.”
As a result of her injuries, Evans considers herself not disabled, but someone with mixed abilities. After losing her hearing, she taught herself how to read lips. She eventually founded Team Unbroken, a racing team of mostly veterans who have experienced life-altering injuries, illness or traumas. The team competed in the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, a multiday expedition that was filmed and is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Today Evans is also engaged locally with organizations including Vet2Vet Maine and the American Legion. Nationally, she is an ambassador for No Barriers and is involved with the programs offered through the Wounded Warrior Project.
Attending the ESPYs
Evans was joined at the award ceremony by her siblings and their spouses, her husband and her service dog.
“I hope the national recognition that comes with this honor will give me opportunities to reach more people and assist them in living their best life despite their barriers,” she said. “Life is challenging for most people right now, and if I can help in any way, I want to be able to do so.”
Evans said she hopes to meet people who might be interested in helping her and Team Unbroken with its mission to encourage others to not be defined by their injuries, illness or traumas. She would like to find partners to help combat veteran suicide and fund scholarships to assist veterans’ recalibration and transition into civilian life.
“Team Unbroken is humbled to be recognized with so many wonderful athletes,” she said. “We have such respect for athletes who work so hard to be the best in their sport. Sports bring joy to so many — everyone has a favorite athlete or team.”
In addition to several upcoming speaking engagements this year, Team Unbroken plans to participate in the Marine Corps Marathon, run up the Empire State Building, bike in the Face of America cycling challenge, join the Bataan Memorial Death March and compete in two Ironman triathlons.
Evans’ military service
Evans first enlisted in 1979, at age 19, 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 said. “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. She participated in counterterrorism operations throughout Italy, Central America and the Middle East. Evans also undertook leadership roles in multiple combat engagements and was deployed in many capacities, including as a paratrooper.
By the end of her career, Evans had risen to command sergeant major, the highest rank an enlisted soldier in the Army can achieve. During her final deployment in 2006, she was responsible for security and personnel at all U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, including 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 said. “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.”
Despite encountering challenges along the way, Evans said she focused on setting a good example for her soldiers, for other women in the military and for herself. “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 said. “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 said that the highlight of her career was watching soldiers she had trained and mentored succeed in their career goals.
In recognition of her distinguished military career and advocacy for veterans, Evans was inducted into the U.S. Veterans Hall of Fame and the U.S. Army Women’s Hall of Fame in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
The beauty of aging
Evans now lives in a Maine community for people who are primarily 70 or older. They serve as an example for Evans, who is amazed when witnessing their daily yoga, running, walking and pickleball games.
“Communities connected by common interests net vibrant, vital living. I have found mentors in my community, and as I watch them age gracefully, I am attempting to do the same thing,” she said.
Evans’ advice to other older adults is to find ways to stay active — physically, mentally and emotionally. “I have had to adjust my own expectations in these areas as I have aged. I am not as fast a runner as I once was, but I still run and enjoy it. It is not about winning races, but the fact that I can still race. My success is measured by how healthy I feel and my energy level,” she said.
“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. 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.
Editor's note: This story, originally published March 8, 2022, has since been updated with Gretchen Evans receiving the Pat Tillman ESPY Award for Service.