Gretchen Evans on hope after military TBI
Retired US Army Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans began serving in the U.S. military at age 19 in 1979. She suffered a life-altering injury during service, becoming one of the more than 430,000 U.S. military members who have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) since 2000. Command Sgt. Maj. Evans’ most recent brain injury ended her 27-year military career. Evans has since founded Team Unbroken, an adaptive racing team of mostly veterans who have experienced life-altering injuries, illness, or traumas. She was honored with the 2022 Pat Tillman Award for Service, and has been inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Hall of Fame and U.S. Veteran Hall of Fame. She has won numerous medals and awards from the Bronze Star to a Presidential Unit Citation Medal, several Global War on Terrorism ribbons, and six Meritorious Service Medals. She is contributing to military TBI, CTE and PTSD research by pledging to donate her brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation as part of Project Enlist.
In this CLF guest-hosted episode of the Coming Home Well podcast, Evans spoke about her experiences with brain injury and recovery, and her decision to pledge her brain to Project Enlist.
CLF: What was it like to join the Army in 1979?
GW: It was a couple of years after the end of the Vietnam War. My NCOs were Vietnam veterans. They’d just started integrating females into basic training companies. Our drill sergeants were all males. They got thrown in the deep end of the pool, but they did a stellar job. Their leadership and training were pivotal to my success in the military. Then I went into intelligence. I remember of 150 people that were in my class in Airborne School, there were three females and there were no female black hats in my company. So again, there was a learning curve for everybody. Things have evolved over my 27-year career, from uniforms being separate, to now the same. Now women can serve in every MLS that they can qualify for, and I think that’s awesome. I’m delighted to see that anyone who wants to serve their country can if they hit all the marks.
And then we talk about brain injury. I saw stars a couple of times. We laughed it off and took Motrin to relieve the pain. This last injury, had I not been hurt in other ways, I wouldn’t have seen a doctor and I would have died on the battlefield. I had a swelling brain they caught in time. The medical care saved my life.
CLF: How did your TBI impact how you handled things as a leader?
GW: I needed to write things down. I sat in meetings taking copious notes because my recall was dissipated. I picked and chose what I wanted to remember. I felt like there was a limit of information that my brain could hold, recall, and process. I relied on other people. Also, I was not sleeping well. I attribute this to combat, stress, leadership, all those things – but I really think these things were caused by the multiple head injuries that I had.
CLF: I think that’s commonplace. We want to persevere, and we don’t want to realize we have an injury that’s going to stop us from doing what we want to do. That’s a bumper sticker for TBI and PTSD.
GW: That’s why I love what you do. I went through 90 percent of my career unaware. I don’t want other servicemembers to do that. There are things you can do to mitigate your symptoms and maintain quality of life. That’s what brought Team Unbroken to the surface and that’s why Project Enlist is important. We don’t want these injuries to define who you are or what you can accomplish.
CLF: How would you classify your TBI?
GW: Mine was considered severe. I blew up my eardrums as well as having severe brain swelling. It damaged important nerves in my brain. My biggest symptom is a little bit of cognitive delay. Something as simple as you look at something like a folder, you know what it is, but for like two seconds, you can’t recall what it’s called. 90 percent of the time I’m high functioning, but 10 percent of the time, [not as much].
CLF: You’ve done a great job of mitigating that.
GW: But it can be humbling. That’s another thing I want to touch on. I think people know they have a new injury before they want to admit it. There are signs and symptoms. Bad news is not like wine, it doesn’t get better with age. So, if you think you have a brain injury, you should get checked. It’s a simple process.
CLF: Good point. When you had your serious TBI, you were with a group of soldiers assaulting an objective. It was unique at the time but not going to be as unique moving forward. We’re going to find more women subjected to the dangers you experienced.
GW: It’s only getting bigger because like I said, now women are going to be leading infantry companies in units engaged with the enemy. The amount of brain injuries is going to increase because even in training, people get hurt all the time.
CLF: You can see why TBI is a signature wound of the last 20 years of warfare.
GW: Absolutely. I don’t know if I have any military friends who don’t have some sort of brain injury from being in service. You’re running around, jumping around, dropping out of airplanes, throwing yourself on the ground. You’re constantly putting yourself at risk for head injuries. It’s like playing football every day. Think about how much we wear a soft cap when we’re in a place where you should have a helmet on. A lot of head injuries happen that way.
CLF: I love the picture behind you because it’s skydiving.
GW: I got to jump with the Golden Knights. In the beginning it was a struggle, getting severely wounded like that. Part of you wants to survive and the other part wants to thrive. You want to start thriving before you’re well enough, so you have a lot of failures. I will say this: the people around me really helped me overcome these injuries. Now I think I’m living the best life I possibly could. I don’t even think about my brain injury until I can’t think about what a folder is or something. I decided that I wasn’t going to let my injury define me. I want to help as many people in my position as I can. I want to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves. I’m doing the same thing I did before, I’m just switching uniforms.
CLF: It’s important to take care of yourself so you can help take care of your family and friends and be that person you’re meant to be.
GW: Educate yourself. Part of my healing was learning about my injury. I read things, went to classes, engaged with organizations, Wounded Warriors and all these other people out there that are setting up services. You can learn about your injury and listen to other people who had the same injury as you and how they navigated it. That’s why I think this veteran network we have is powerful.
CLF: You pledged to donate your brain to Project Enlist. Why?
GW: I want to be part of the solution. Even if donating my brain after I’m not using it anymore can help one person, it’s worth it to me. If a doctor can open this thing and look at it and think, ‘oh, this makes sense to me now.’ It could go back to the type of helmets we were wearing. If I donate my brain and they figure out how to help people who already have head injuries or are even born with head injuries, to me, that’s a win-win for everybody.
I’d just like to say to all the female Veterans out there, I would encourage them to donate their brains. We want our granddaughters down the line to get the best care, the best equipment, to prevent them from possibly having a life-altering injury. Let’s all take that pledge and donate our brains to help others.