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Retired Col. Greg Gadson speaks to a full house at Thurman Auditorium on Suicide Prevention and Awareness Day. Gadson, a former Fort Belvoir Garrison commander, shared his struggles after losing both legs to an IED in Iraq, and said it's vital we acknowledge people around us and ask how they're doing.

Retired Col. Greg Gadson, a former Fort Belvoir garrison commander, returned to his former duty station, last week, to talk about being present and resilient, in honor of Suicide Prevention Month.

Gadson, garrison commander from 2012-2014, said the occasion was a chance to reconnect with familiar faces, which he called honoring and very humbling. He said everyone has to be on guard for suicide prevention 365 days a year, because it’s a problem, year round.

“Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in our nation, which is very concerning, because it doesn’t need to happen,” Gadson said. “As a society, we have to look at ourselves and ask: why are people giving up, why is there a lack of hope and support, and, quite honestly, why, amongst us, are we allowing someone to slip through,” he asked.

Labeled as people

“We like to put labels on everybody, like Generation X, Millennials, baby boomers. But, why not resist labels? At the end of the day, we’re all people,” he said.

“We’re all human beings. We all need love. We all have tough times. It doesn’t matter the label society puts on ourselves, we are fundamentally human beings, with a need for connection, to be needed, loved and depended on,” Gadson said.

He suggested that, instead of texts and e-mails, we communicate by sitting down with someone for a conversation.

“It’s not just about words, but communication on so many levels. A real conversation gives you a chance to put your arms around someone, see their hands and faces and hear their voices and inflection,” he said. “We thrive on communication. We need to nourish ourselves as we connect and deal with the challenges that all of us have. Gadson added that one person’s kind gesture or interest in someone’s well-being can be a turning point in the life of someone in despair.

Presence

Gadson urged audience members to be present. “You cannot drag the invisible anchor of yesterday through your life, lamenting and complaining about what happened to you, because nobody here can change that,” he said. “And, we can’t live our lives looking over the horizon, thinking about some day.

“Put all of your energy into today,” he said. “That’s what resiliency is about. It’s about being your best and living up to be the best you can be, every day. You cannot do that, if you are not present.”

The Profession of Arms

Gadson then detailed the day in May 2007, when he was wounded by an IED, as he was returning from a memorial service for two Soldiers.

“Those mens’ lives really stung and stuck with me. I honestly couldn’t shake them,” Gadson said. “And, that’s when my vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb,” he said.

“ … I was fortunate … because a young, chemical private, not a school-trained medic, found me unconscious, in a pool of my own blood, and put tourniquets on my legs, a fact doctors say saved my life. That chemical specialist who ultimately saved my life was his best that day,” Gadson said.

The IED eventually cost Gadson both legs above the knees and normal use of his right arm and hand. However, he remained on active duty and retired after serving as Belvoir Garrison commander.

The future

Gadson admitted that shortly after the explosion, he couldn’t see a future. “I remember a weekend of breaking down with my family, pushing them family away, balled up in a corner, just not wanting to live,” he said. “But, for nearly two days that I cried, through all these tears, there was this voice … something inside of me that just wouldn’t let me quit.

“That’s when I rededicated myself to not worrying about tomorrow, because I don’t even know what tomorrow’s supposed to look like, for me. Let me just stay in the moment. My legs aren’t gonna grow back. So, I might as well not look back,” he said. “Let me be the best today and I’ll deal with tomorrow ... that’s how I define our resilience.”

Caring for one another

“When someone takes their life, that’s a failure on us, as it’s us not taking care of each other,” he said. “We’re all guilty of not asking that how people are doing, or if they’re alright. We find ways not to connect, instead of finding ways to connect.”

Gadson asked the audience members to promise to engage with someone they’ve never engaged with; say ‘hello’ or greet somebody; tell somebody you love or care about them. “Take the overt step of taking care of each other. That’s what this Army and the military is all about ….taking care of each other. When you can’t take care of each other, you don’t talk, you don’t engage with each other.

As small as the world is, there’s something missing, as we’re not connecting with each other, Gadson said, as he also asked audience members to hug someone in the audience they don’t know. “We have one life to live, this journey is temporary,” Gadson said. “Every day is precious, important and a gift, so make the most of that gift. Be your best and stay present.”

We can all help prevent suicide. The Crisis Line provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.