Starting Over: How Gretchen Evans Found Strength and Purpose after a Life-Altering Injury

Posted 3/28/2021

Gretchen Evans had reached incredible heights and was still on her way up when a combat injury slammed the door on a 27-year military career. But by turning despair into drive, she rebuilt her world — and committed to helping others do the same.

In 2006, Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans had a list of accomplishments that would impress even the highest of achievers. The Texas native had completed countless training programs, been chosen for multiple select operations and leadership roles, and reached the highest rank an enlisted soldier could earn. As Garrison Command Sergeant Major of Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan, she was in charge of security, logistics, and personnel.

Then a rocket blast slammed her into a bunker, causing total hearing loss, a traumatic brain injury, PTSD — and the loss of her 27-year career. “In the military you are trained and prepared to face most difficult situations,” Gretchen says. “This was not one of them.”

Gretchen, a Martin’s Point US Family Health Plan member, says these injuries left her in a dark place. Without independence, the ability to serve, and the quality of life that had helped her thrive, she felt a deep and severe loss of purpose. Two critical catalysts changed all that. One was an organization called No Barriers. The other, a specially trained service dog called Aura.

Finding a new way forward

No Barriers is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people with mixed abilities – including Veterans who have suffered injuries or mental illness – overcome struggle and set new goals. With signature one-week expeditions, a positive approach, and a transformative process, they help people believe “what’s stronger within us is stronger than what’s in our way.”

“No Barriers gave me back the self-confidence I lost when I got injured,” says Gretchen. “They introduced me to tools to help me find my new path, new passion and new purpose: To help others and live a full life, not allowing my disabilities to define me or what I can accomplish.”

Back home, Gretchen met the four-legged companion that made her day to day life completely different. “Aura gave me back my independence. She allowed me as a deaf person to navigate a hearing world. She became my ears and opened up the world to me again.”

A future full of hope and meaning

Today Gretchen’s days are full again. As an ambassador for No Barriers and the U.S. Army Women’s Foundation, she mentors and coaches fellow veterans. She has led a team of youth with mixed abilities on an expedition in Nepal, and competed in the World’s Toughest Race in Fiji with a team of disabled and wounded combat veterans. For her outstanding service with both the army and in her community, she will be inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Hall of Fame this March, and was recognized by the U.S. Veteran Hall of Fame in 2019.

Gretchen’s journey provides tools and inspiration for anyone who is struggling or stuck.

Recognize you have a choice.
Despite her many impressive accomplishments, Gretchen insists she’s no more special than anyone else. We all have grit, courage, and wisdom in equal measures, she says. “The onus is on each of us to decide what our future will be. You must choose daily to move forward.”

Establish a rope team.
Gather people you can count on through thick and thin, because you can’t always do it all on your own. This is a core tenant of the No Barriers approach. “The beauty of a rope team is you receive the encouragement and assistance you need to reach your goals, find your passion and purpose,” Gretchen explains. “But you also take responsibility for caring for the rest of the team. You commit to help them as well. This makes you all part of each other’s successes and failures.”

Find your “why.”
Facing a life-altering injury, illness, or situation often feels like you’re in uncharted territory. Every day, Gretchen needed to identify her purpose. “Why do I want to continue with physical therapy, or occupational therapy? Why do I want to expose myself to the challenges and barriers of a life with severe injuries? It would have been so easy just to accept the changes and ease into a life defined by my injuries.”

First you. Then others
. In the beginning, you might have to be selfish to survive. And that’s ok. Gretchen had to first take charge of her mind and body and learn to look forward. Gradually, her “why” became about others. “The sharing of a victory is so much sweeter and the sadness of a failure is so much less painful when shared. I intend to travel with as many people as I can find to come along. Our destinations may differ but even if we share only part of the journey, we are the better for it.”

Employ your grit, your mind, your body and your rope team,” Gretchen offers. “Before you know it, you will be pulling others up the mountain along with you.”