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Academics, Character, Leadership

NCLS keynote speaker: ‘Good leaders save lives’

By Ray Bowden, U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs / Published February 27, 2017.  


Retired Army Col. Greg Gadson said he’s grateful to be alive.

Gadson was the keynote speaker here at the annual National Character and Leadership Symposium, Feb. 23.

“Good leaders save lives,” he said from his wheelchair on the Arnold Hall stage.

Gadson lost his legs after his armored vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Baghdad in May 2007. He was returning from a memorial service for two soldiers in his brigade.

“I remember being ejected,” he said. “I remember rolling to a stop, lying on my back and just asking God not to let me die here. Then I was unconscious.”

The colonel was lying on the ground, barely alive, when a young soldier placed tourniquets on his legs.

“That night, I went through 130 units of blood,” Gadson said. “ The average human body has eight or nine.”

The soldier who tended to Gadson was not a medic.

“He was assigned to be a medic because we were short on medics during the 2007 surge,” Gadson said.

The enlisted chemical custodian attended a two-week medical course before deploying.

“He lived up to the standards of leadership and saved my life,” Gadson said.

Gadson said leadership as a combination of pride, poise and teamwork.

“Pride comes from self-accountability,” he said. “Be accountable to yourself. Poise is about character and doing the right things the right way. It’s about telling your boss something they don’t want to hear.”

Leaders must take responsibility for their team and recognize its value.

“The greater value and purpose in the mission is more important than any recognition you could ever have,” Gadson said.

Second Lt. Emma Pauke was in the audience.

“My biggest take-away is that whatever aspect in life you’re involved with, you’ve got to fight for every inch, just like Colonel Gadson said,” she said. “I found myself questioning whether I was fighting for every inch in my current position.”

Gadson said taking the easier path comes at a high cost.

“Our profession demands the highest character because the consequences are huge,” he said. “You don’t ever want to look back and say, ‘I wish I’d been better.”’

NCLS Speaker - Retired Army Col. Greg Gadson

NCLS Speaker – Retired Army Col. Greg Gadson

Opening Day

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, the Academy superintendent, introduced the start of the symposium and Gadson.

The annual symposium featured military, corporate, and academic speakers sharing stories of overcoming challenges. This year’s NCLS theme was Warrior ethos and the American Airman.

Johnson said today’s cadets need to think like warriors to be successful officers.

“We have literally institutionalized this theme into our curriculum here,” Johnson said. “Every cadet must demonstrate [warrior ethos] prior to becoming a second lieutenant. This means developing the warrior ethos permeating the entire cadet experience from the classroom to the airfield to the athletic fields.”

The general said the NCLS theme corresponds to the idea that every Air Force cadet, Airman and civilian, contributes to the mission.

“Though each speaker may say it differently, the essence of what it means to be a warrior is universal — commitment, moral character, and perseverance in the face of adversity,” she said.

Johnson said the role of a newly commissioned officer is complex. Modern military conflicts look like science fiction compared to 30 years ago.

“Not only do [cadets and officers] have to understand the battlespace in the air, they also need to understand how to incorporate cyber, space and effectively harness the creative ingenuity of creative people,” she said.

Featured NCLS speakers included former NFL player Brian Griese, TEDTalks speaker Anthony Porter, and Maj. Heather Penney, was ordered to ram a hijacked plane with her unarmed F-16 on 9-11.

“The Academy holds this event annually to grow and nurture our commitment to developing leaders of character that serve not just the Air Force, but the nation,” Johnson said.

NCLS Speaker - Retired Army Col. Greg Gadson

Retired Army Col. Greg Gadson, the keynote speaker for this year’s National Character and Leadership Symposium at the U.S. Air Force Academy, speaks from the stage in Arnold Hall, Feb. 23, 2017. Gadson spoke about the value of developing character at the symposium. He lost his legs to a roadside bomb in 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

[Editor’s note: Gadson is a 1989 graduate of the U.S Military Academy. He’s also one of the first service members to use a powered-prosthetic knee with technology allowing amputees to walk with a natural gait. He’s a motivational speaker and part-time actor, appearing in Battleship, a science fiction navy war film released in the U.S. in 2012.

Pauke, a 2016 graduate of the Academy is on “casual status” here and scheduled to attend missileer training.]