Why do Americans commemorate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
That’s the question retired Col. Gregory D. Gadson asked an audience of service members and Department of the Army civilians during his guest speech for Fort Meade’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance on Jan. 11.
Gadson, a former garrison commander at Fort Belvoir, Va., and a motivational speaker, said King’s life and his contributions are recognized because “he dared us to be better than we could be.
“But for those of us who serve, those of us who wear the uniform, he could have worn a uniform with us because he served our communities and our nation.”
The 90-minute event, held at Club Meade, was co-hosted by the garrison’s Equal Opportunity Office and the 1st Recruiting Brigade.
Maj. Jeff Cherry of the 1st Recruiting Brigade was the emcee. Cadets from the Meade High School Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps posted the colors. Chaplain (Maj.) Patrick D. Ireland of the 1st Recruiting Brigade gave the invocation and the benediction.
Maj. Angela K. Jackson, public affairs officer and social media manager at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., introduced Gadson.
After Gadson’s speech, the audience dined on a Southern-style lunch of fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and black-eyed peas catered by Club Meade.
“It was very inspirational,” Roselee Bobell, Employment Readiness Program manager at Army Community Service, said of Gadson’s speech.
Gadson said King was a prime example of someone who “lived a selfless life.”
“He was an example of a person who put his all into a cause when he knew he was endangering his life,” Gadson said. “That is an example that all of us can identify with.”
The civil rights leader, said Gadson, is also an example of striving to do one’s best.
“He challenged our consciousness. He challenged everybody to live up to something greater than ourselves,” Gadson said. “Our challenge every day as Soldiers is to live up to being the best we can be.”
Gadson said that despite the obstacles King faced, the civil rights leader was concerned about the lives of others and their ability to fulfill their potential.
During his Army career, Gadson said he got up every day willing to serve.
“My job [was] to see my Soldiers, my organization succeed,” the 51-year-old said. “It [was] not about myself. It’s about my people.”
The example of a commitment to a cause and personal sacrifice is King’s legacy, Gadson said. The retired colonel challenged the audience to do the same.
“You have to be wiling to look yourself in the mirror and see the truth and then do something about it,” he said. “Be the best you can be today. … Find your example, find your hero and challenge yourself. Make the most of this life. We only have one.”
A native of Chesapeake, Va., Gadson is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in the Army for 26 years.
In May 2007, when he was commander of the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery, Gadson was severely injured by an improvised explosive device while returning from a memorial service for two comrades in Baghdad.
He lost both of his legs above the knee and suffered a severe injury to his right arm.
Gadson became one of the first Soldiers to be fitted with a next-generation powered prosthetic knee, which allows amputees to walk with a more natural gait. Despite his injuries, Gadson requested to stay on active duty rather than take a medical retirement.
He subsequently served as the head of the Army’s Wounded Warrior program for two years and later assumed command of the Fort Belvoir garrison. He served in the post until his retirement in 2014.
In 2012, Gadson made a foray into acting and was the lead actor in the movie “Battleship.” He portrayed a combat-injured veteran who helped to save the world from an alien invasion.
More recently, Gadson starred in 10 episodes of “The Inspectors,” a family television series that aired on CBS.
After the presentation, Col. Dina S. Wandler, commander of the 1st Recruiting Brigade, and Garrison Commander Col. Tom Rickard each presented Gadson with a plaque of appreciation.
A highlight of the event was the acknowledgment of the winner and runner-up of Meade High School’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest.
Ayefune Kodjovi, a freshman and cadet in the JROTC, was the runner-up.
“I’m actually surprised. I didn’t expect to go so far,” the 14-year-old said before the event began. “I did good for a freshman.”
Destini Thrweatt, a junior at Meade High who is enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, read her first-place essay to the audience.
“I’m still letting it sink in,” the 16-year-old said before her reading. “I’m shocked and surprised. I’m excited about being a part of something big.”
The two students received a plaque of appreciation from Wandler and Master Sgt. Rickey Gethers, the noncommissioned officer in charge of Meade High’s JROTC. They each received two gift cards totaling $50.
As people stood in line for the buffet lunch, others waited to shake Gadson’s hand and take selfies. He also signed autographs.
“It’s humbling, it really is. You sort of have to pinch yourself,” Gadson said after greeting his well-wishers. “I wouldn’t call myself an actor. To me, I’m always a Soldier first.”
Sgt. 1st Class Difoliscia Hardy, a project manager at the Defense Information Systems Agency, said the King holiday has always been a day of service for her. She plans to spend her day volunteering for the local United Way in Frederick, Md., where she lives.
She, too, took a selfie with Gadson. When asked if she was star-stuck, Hardy smiled.
“He’s a Soldier,” she said, “just like me.”