Erik: This is our No Barriers podcast. This is Erik Weihenmayer talking [00:00:30] from Golden, my home. We have my fellow host Jeff Evans. How are you doing today, Jeff?
Jeff: Good, Erik. Good, Erik. It seems to be another shorts and t-shirts day here in the middle of winter in Colorado. Everything is going as not planned for our winter, but it's still a beautiful day here in Colorado.
Erik: Dumped 12 inches yesterday I heard up in the mountains so maybe things are looking up. We're not getting much of a winter. I didn't [00:01:00] get much of a winter these last few days because I was out visiting one of our No Barriers graduates, Matt Burges, who runs this awesome organization, Freedom Fidos, training service dogs for vets. I was checking out his facility. Then I went down to Miami to meet one of our No Barrier sponsors, Tom Sullivan who founded Cabinets To Go. They have 50 something stores and they're gonna have a scholarship for vets, youth, [00:01:30] really anyone in our community to take part in one of our event, one of our programs, one person from each of those Cabinet To Go communities. That's 50 something scholarships of people that are gonna get to participate. It was a really good day connected with Tom and Cabinets. What you been up to, Jeff?
Jeff: This half winter that we got here has been challenging for me, outdoor [00:02:00] perspective. It's like just when you think the ice is good enough to get in, we have a 50 degree day or 60 degree days. It's made for some challenging conditions. Things are going good for our upcoming trip to Nepal. We're gonna climb a mountain called Mera Peak, which is a 21,000 foot peak a little bit off the checking trails up to base camp. Fortunately as it plays out, [00:02:30] we have six former No Barriers participants joining us for this trip. A lot of the No Barriers messages will be percolating throughout the trip and the climb that we do. A lot of the messaging and content that we share and talk about will be centered around that idea of embracing this journey and being together and really soaking up the idea of fellowship. I'm really excited about [00:03:00] that. I know you and I will not see each other in Nepal at least this spring. You're heading back there in June with our guest for the day. Why don't you give us a little bit of a 30,000 foot view of that?
Erik: It's gonna be so fun. I can't wait. I don't get into the field as much as I'd like with our group. We're gonna be leading a youth group to Nepal and we have kids signed up of all abilities, not just kids with [00:03:30] physical disabilities but kids with invisible disabilities. Kids, perhaps, who have been bullied and want to use a trip like this as a platform for social change to bring an experience like this home and create their own No Barriers pledge to elevate their community in some way. We're gonna be heading to [Muston 00:03:50], which is a remote area of Nepal. It's up on the Tibetan Plateau. We're gonna be exchanging with a bunch of villages and schools and [00:04:00] school for the deaf, some disability organizations and really trying to understand, culturally, how issues happen, how people break through barriers in Nepal, what kind of barriers haven't they been able to breakthrough yet. We're gonna be studying some sustainable projects that this great partner organization, the Z Foundation, have created. They get community buy in and then they have the villagers do [00:04:30] sweat labor and build sewage and electric, hydro-electric, all kinds of cool projects to bring modernization to those villages. It's gonna be an amazing trip. We're recruiting right now. Great transition because our next guest is going to be one of the leaders on this trip. I am so thrilled to be speaking with you today. Jeff, why don't you introduce our guest.
Jeff: Gretchen has ... probably within the past [00:05:00] two years, she participated in various warriors female trip down in the Gila wilderness. She's got an amazing story. She served 27 years in the army all the way to, I believe, one of the highest ranks in CO ranks of command sergeant major. During her service, she was involved in a rocket blast, which impacted her [00:05:30] obviously in a lot of different ways. It caused a significant traumatic brain injury as well as significant hearing loss. We get introduced to Gretchen after these life changing episodes and we see them thriving. Of course, I want to hear more about Gretchen's story, about her journey that she's been on [00:06:00] to go to the point to the fact that she just wrote a book called Leading From the Front, which I'm gonna read for sure. The fact that she's now gonna step off with you and go to Nepal. Gretchen, welcome to the podcast. We're excited to hear some of your story.
Erik: Gretchen, you served for 27 years serving our country. That's a long time. [00:06:30] Tell us why you chose to do that.
Gretchen: Initially, honestly, it was just out of survival. I lost both of my parents when I was a teenager. I was attempting to become financially self-supportive. It just became really difficult. The military offered a job and training and income [00:07:00] and all that kind of stuff. I went down and enlisted in the army with the thought that I would stay in for four years and take advantage of their educational benefits, get out and finish college. What I really found was an intense love for what the military did and what it represented and the people that I served with. Four years turned into being 27.
Jeff: You were telling me, Gretchen, you met your husband. I [00:07:30] find it interesting that he's a navy guy and you're an army gal. Can you tell us how that played out.
Gretchen: Yeah, so my husband, Robert, was a navy chaplain in '06. He was sent to Afghanistan to be in charge of all the chaplains in Afghanistan. At the time, I was the senior command sergeant major in Afghanistan of all the installations. Everything good and bad came [00:08:00] across both our desks because the nature of both of our jobs. We really had this intense friendship and respect for each other. It came with the good news, it also came with the bad news when we had casualties and had to notify families and things. Robert left after a seven month tour and went home. I guess about a month later, I get this really lengthy letter full of nonsense until the last paragraph. [00:08:30] Then he said, "Could you ever be romantically interested in me?" Oh my God. I wrote back and said, "Did you forget where you left me? I'm in Afghanistan. I can't be romantic about anything. You must have a plan so indulge me." The plan was we'd write letters like they did in World War II and try to get to know each other that way. Ultimately then I got injured and life changed, but Robert [00:09:00] had proposed two months prior to me getting injured. I really thought that might be a war stopper. He said he didn't care that I was blown up and deaf. That's a great guy, don't you think?.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah.
Erik: I love that.
Jeff: The fact that you feel in love in the sandbox and then developed and cultivated this relationship and it was all prior to your injury, that says a lot about the character of both of you and what you've been through.
Erik: [00:09:30] Gretchen, by the way, I can relate to your story because my wife, when we were dating ... I'm blind and I have prosthetic eyes. It was this big event for me to have the courage to take my eyes out in front of my wife. I don't know if you can relate, but I was terrified because I was thinking, "Oh, I'm imperfect. She's gonna think I'm ugly." I took my eyes out and she said, "I [00:10:00] can live with that." I love that, when you find somebody who understands you're imperfect, you've been hurt and beat up a little bi but you're still lovable.
Gretchen: Absolutely. I agree totally.
Jeff: Tell us a little bit, Gretchen, about the journey that led you to that day and give us a sense of [00:10:30] how that day played out and then the near future as you started to heal, both emotionally and physically.
Erik: And people don't know that you had nine combat tours.
Gretchen: It started in Granada. I jumped into Granada and did Panama and Central America, [inaudible 00:10:59], Bosnia, [00:11:00] Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Over a 27 year period, I had nine combat tours. I felt like I was a cat. I knew it was gonna get me sooner or later.
Jeff: Was it the ninth when the incident took place?
Gretchen: Yeah, the last one. That was that one. What happened that day was I was flying around in my helicopter [00:11:30] to visit troops at a fort operating base, a very remote place. It was pretty exposed. I was just there visiting troops. We were out walking around. I'm just asking troops questions. All of sudden we take rocket fire coming in like rain. It was pounding us. I was telling to [00:12:00] the troops to get in the bunkers, get in the bunkers. We had these concrete bunkers scattered throughout the installation. Before I could even get myself into a bunker, a rocket hit about 10 feet from where I was standing. It threw me into one of the concrete bunker, which then resulted in my brain injury. It blew out my eardrums and took some shrapnel in places that weren't protected by my flight vest. The next thing I know I'm waking [00:12:30] up lying down in the back of a helicopter and I'm thinking to myself, "This is not the way I normally ride in a helicopter." Then I was motored back to [inaudible 00:12:40].
When I got to [inaudible 00:12:44], they put me in a semi-coma just to do an evaluation to see what all ... maybe if I had some internal injuries and just to plug up all the little holes from piece of shrapnel. Those things just make it nasty. [00:13:00] They get in and they fester and things. When I came out of the coma, there was a very young army doctor standing next to me with one of those white dry erase boards and he had a marker. He wrote on the board and then showed it to me. It says, "You're deaf." I took the board from him and I wiped it off with my hands. I wrote on there, "Forever." He goes, "Yes." Of all my injuries, [00:13:30] that was probably the hardest one to overcome because you wake up deaf. You're a hearing person. I was 46 years old, been a hearing person my whole life. All of a sudden, I'm deaf, on top of that with the head injury and all the other things.
Honestly, the thing that really kicked me in the gut wasn't even my physical injuries. What kicked my in the gut and made me pause [00:14:00] and made me afraid was I went from hero to zero in one second. I didn't have a transition plan. It had not even crossed my mind about retirement even though I had 27 years. We were still at war and I wanted to be with my troops. I was just so devastated and probably really angry that I'd didn't get to go out on my terms, that my career was snatched from me [00:14:30] at the hands of the enemy. I think that injury, that devastation was the hardest one for me to overcome.
Erik: What's that like? No Barriers is a lit about understanding these processes that we go through. What is that like being a hero one minute and then a zero in the next? What's going in your brain, all the [00:15:00] uncertainty, all the confusion, all the psychological fear? What is that experience like?
Gretchen: The experience for me was I just didn't have a path any longer. I was just kind of like, "What now?" Toppled with these injuries, I just thought, "Nobody's gonna want me. I'm not ever gonna work again. How am I gonna communicate with people." [00:15:30] I was lost, as lost as lost can be. I hit this really low point and where, as hard as I tried ... and I'm a pretty determined person. I'm a marathoner and I jump out of airplanes and I repel. I do all these things. All of a sudden, I was this hearing and the brain injury were almost prohibitive from doing all the things I knew how to [00:16:00] do. I had these non-marketable skills like taking over small countries. That doesn't really resonate well in the civilian life. I didn't know what I was going to do. Honestly, I was in a black hole for a very long time.
Jeff: I've heard you say as well because remember I heard you speak in Ashville and you talked about losing your family and your fellowship and your mission. When you say [00:16:30] your family, you're talking about your military family, right? Your team, right?
Gretchen: Yeah, my team, my soldiers. I had been with them my whole adult life. If you think about it, I went in right after I turned 19 and I was 46 years old. My entire, almost, adult life had been spent in uniform with troops. I was not prepared for the civilian world. I'm still kind of a little bit of a crappy civilian to be honest. [00:17:00] That was my family. That was what I woke up to everyday for 27 years. These were my battle buddies and I had a mission. I knew what I was supposed to do. It was very well defined. I was good at it. I had honed in on my skills. That's when I said I went from hero to zero. I had no skills that I thought were applicable to life after the military.
Jeff: Do you also think that there are certain people that get [00:17:30] into a routine maybe, they have a direction of serving? You're very good at serving other people. Then you get hurt or something happens and you don't know how to be served. You don't know how to be helped. It's like a totally weird situation that a lot of people get in that situation where they don't know how to handle it, right?
Gretchen: Yeah, very true. Especially as a sergeant major because our rank is very special. We're supposed to be the advocate for the troop. [00:18:00] If you work for a three or four star general, he or she comes to you and usually he defers to you because they're your third or fourth general and you may be their first sergeant major. Anyway, you have the pulse of the unit. Your responsibility are to the troops and to make sure they're taken care of. I wasn't used to anyone taking care of me. I was taking care of other people. All of a sudden, [00:18:30] now I was kind of needy, which is gut wrenching at first because you don't even know how to ask for help nor do you want to. You don't have the words for it and also, it just feels so wrong.
Jeff: It sounds to me like, Gretchen, you went through all of these different phases of emotion following your injury that we always hear so much about all the way from anger to frustration to sadness to [00:19:00] depression and then finally, at some point, you get to reconnect. Can you walk us through that path for you and how you've morphed from that fateful day to where you are now and then maybe give us a sense of your experience in the Gila wilderness and what part that played [00:19:30] in your experience as far as healing.
Gretchen: It was really very a strange thing. I had kept in touch with some of my troops. We don't have to say a lot for people to know that something's not right. It's like a sixth sense almost. One of my guys wrote to me. He says, "You know, sergeant major, [00:20:00] I realize you're in a bad place right now. I just came back from a No Barriers expedition. You really should check this out because I know you like to be outside and you like to hike because you used to march our butts off all the time. This is right up your alley, carrying heavy crap and walking all over the place and not showering." He says, "This has got your name all over it." Initially, I tried everything else. I had tried [00:20:30] therapy and I tried medication. Each of those, at the time, were somewhat helpful but they weren't the silver bullet that I was looking for to get out of this hole. I wanted out of the hole. I was clinging to the very sides to keep from falling in. Just because he asked me and because of our relationship, I got online and filled out an application.
Part of the process is that the physician [00:21:00] that works with No Barriers calls and talks to the warrior and talks about your disabilities. He gets on the phone and he says, "Okay, tell me what's wrong with you." In my mind, I thought, "They're not gonna take me anyways, but I'm gonna be honest." I said, "Okay, I'm deaf as a doornail. I have a traumatic brain injury. I have PTSD. I have little shrapnel pieces still all over me. I have a right side weakness [00:21:30] that can be problematic." I had a litany of things that I said that were wrong with me. He paused for like three seconds, then he says to me-
Erik: You're perfect.
Gretchen: You're exactly what we're looking for.
Erik: You're perfect.
Gretchen: You're perfect.
Erik: That's right. You're perfectly imperfect just like the rest of us. That's beautiful.
Gretchen: It was beautiful.
Erik: Okay, you got accepted into the program. I'm just curious about what it was like to be with some colleagues because, [00:22:00] as you mentioned, the biggest pain you were experiencing was this lost of camaraderie and fellowship. Take us through that a little bit.
Gretchen: At this point, really my physical injuries were what they were. I made accommodations to all the technology out there to help me with my hearing issue, my brain injury same with that. My real issue was [00:22:30] that I was just disconnected from life and from other people. I go on the expedition and a group of fantastic people, there was one other female and the rest were male warriors from all eras. We had two guys from Vietnam and then the rest of us were mostly post-9/11 veterans. It was in Colorado. The minute we all sat down [00:23:00] for the very first meeting, I felt like I'm back home. I might not be wearing a uniform, but these are my guys. Once we kind of told each other about ourselves and I told them I was a sergeant major, they wouldn't even call me by my first name anymore because that, to them ... Later they told me that made them feel so safe and so connected to because they each had a story about a beloved sergeant major who had made a difference in their life. It was like all [00:23:30] the stars lined up. It was just perfect.
We hiked and we talked and I felt like all of a sudden, that hole started filling up with just good things. The despair that I been feeling and the hopelessness, little by little with each step as I was walking up those mountains started to dissipate. It turned the corner for me. There was some healing afterwards. I still wake up every day and not [00:24:00] everybody's perfect but that one expedition was the turning point in my life.
Erik: I thought that was interesting. This is Erik, Gretchen. You talked about a hole and then you start to fill up that hole. Do you think that's what healing ultimately is? There's a lot of people listening probably that are experiencing a loss or getting stuck somewhere [00:24:30] and they want to heal. What does that look like? What did that process look like for you, filling in that hole of loss?
Gretchen: What it looked like for me is first you gotta realize that you got a hole. The first step in getting better is self-awareness. I knew I had a hole, but it became really obvious to me how deep and wide it was when I got on the expedition. [00:25:00] Letting people into your life and realizing that helping other people, I would say probably other than the guides, I was in the best shape on that hike. I'm very petite. I'm 5'2" and 98 pounds on a good day. I would carry extra stuff for people and hike. That let me help other people, which is really was I felt like destined [00:25:30] to do my whole life. I was just doing it in a different way so that void of losing my troops was replaced by engaging with other people who also were trying to fill a hole. There's like this unity thing like we're gonna heal each other.
Erik: Cool. Where did that lead you after that trip? You graduate and then you make a No Barriers pledge. Tell us about that amazing pledge [00:26:00] that's resulted in your book.
Gretchen: I had to think about this pledge. There's lots of things that I could've pledged but I had been working on this book that really came out of putting down the stories of 27 years of serving with the most heroic men and women I've ever met in my life. It's really about the troops. It's written from my perspective but it's these wonderful stories about them. My pledge was the finish the [00:26:30] book. It probably was honestly about 89% finished already, but for some reason I just couldn't put that last period on the page because I didn't think I was healthy enough to finish it. Maybe I was afraid. I said to my guys and gals that were hiking with me, I said, "I'm gonna finish that book and you're gonna read it some day. Hopefully it will be meaningful for you." I did. I finished [00:27:00] it shortly ago. It's called Leading From the Front. It's lots vignettes about these remarkable things that happened in those 27 years.
Jeff: Do you consider yourself a writer? I think a lot of people ... Erik and I have both written books. I think some people would say, "I'm a writer. I enjoy the process because in a way, it's a little bit therapeutic." Did you find that through the case or was it a struggle or did you despise the process or did [00:27:30] you embrace it at some point?
Gretchen: When I was writing it, I wasn't thinking I was writing it ... I was writing it to help heal myself because I was writing about things that happen. When you put it down on paper, you have to remember better. Sometimes your brain plays tricks on you. When you write it down, I had to explain what it smelled like and what it sounded like and why Sergeant so-and- [00:28:00] so did this and all the little [inaudible 00:28:03] pieces. I don't consider myself a writer. I consider myself a storyteller.
Jeff: Why did you call it Leading From the Front? I've seen books and people talk about leading from behind and leading from every direction. Why did you call it Leading From the Front? Is that an allusion to the frontline? What is that?
Gretchen: In lots of ways, that title resonated with me. One, always try [00:28:30] to be someone that my soldiers could respect and look up to, not physically but somebody to eliminate and to lead with a firm but a kind heart. Also, I did lead from the front as often as I could. I wasn't one to stay back at the headquarters. I wanted to be up there with them. I wasn't a risk taker, I just [00:29:00] felt like if I'm asking them to do that then I aught to be there with them. It's that. That's where that title came from.
Erik: I think that's your wiring, Gretchen. You're just absolutely wired. One takeaway from you is you were born to lead and when that got taken from you, you have to find a different outlet for you. I so applaud the idea of [00:29:30] who you are and what you've become since your injury. It's clear you live for others in a big way. The fact that, fur to your injury, you were put in a situation where you couldn't do this thing that is so you. I can imagine that really hurt and really [00:30:00] struck you right in the gut. After you finished your first No Barriers' experience other than the pledge and the book, what else have you taken on your journey since then and how have you applied it to your life in Ashville as a civilian and doing the things that you do from day to day when you're not in the back country with a warrior's team.
Gretchen: [00:30:30] I went on another expedition after that initial one to the Gila wilderness. Part of the No Barriers program is a phase three where we stay connected with warriors after they finish their expedition and offer them we call it coaching. We offer them assistance and encouragement. You become part of a rope team for them to help [00:31:00] them achieve their goals. I find that incredibly satisfying. I have my little group of warriors that I reach out to and just plot along. Sometimes they need a kick in the butt to say, "Come on, you can do this." Sometimes they need you just to listen and you let them work out the problem for themselves because usually within themselves, they have the answer. You just get blinded by the circumstances. I spend a lot of my time working with my Barriers alum. [00:31:30] Also, I'm working with our development team so we can raise more funds so we can send more warriors and youth on programs. I enjoy that because I love telling the story about No Barriers. To me, it's not hard to sell such a great program. I can speak from experience that had I not taken the chance and filled out the form that day, I feel like I could have very easily become another statistic, which would have been [00:32:00] awful for everybody.
Also, I help my husband in his job. His hospital serves 10,000 veterans every week or so. Just advising him sometimes on the way that soldiers think and what's important to them. I'm a good person for him to come home to and say, "I had this situation. What would you suggest would be best way to handle this," and try to [00:32:30] help him so he can make the VA an easy, safe place for veterans to get good healthcare.
Erik: A lot of this conversation, Gretchen, has been about leadership and service. You served for 27 years in the military and then this thing happens to you, this thing of great loss. You're still leading. In a way, [00:33:00] what's going through my mind is that there's an ironic thing here. Has this helped you understand leadership or become a better leader than you might have if you hadn't gotten hurt?
Gretchen: Absolutely, I have no regrets. You know what? It made me a better leader, absolutely. I really had to dig deep and I had to understand and try even harder to be empathetic and sympathetic [00:33:30] and be this strong person so that people would ... I used to always say to my people they don't care what you know until they know that you care. Part of it is just letting people know that you care to begin with and then to walk with them. Part of my pledge on my last one was to sit with the broken. I mean that in the sense that I want to be there when people [00:34:00] feel like they don't have any other hope and I can reach out because I've been in that hole. I don't want to get back down in it with you, but I'll certainly give you a hand because I know the way out. Just to help people get out of that hole and fill it with things that are out there. I think that's really. It's made me exponentially a better leader.
Erik: You certainly are.
Jeff: You truly are [00:34:30] the prototype of a No Barriers warrior, Gretchen. You've gone through a transformational experience. You been knocked down, and then you stood back up. Now what you're doing is completing that heroes journey, that whole Joseph Campbell's heroes journey circle. You chose to go into battle. You elected to voluntarily. You went into battle, you got your butt kicked. Now on the return of the completion [00:35:00] of that circle, you are now sharing our experiences to be able to improve the livelihoods of the people that you care the most about. I think that that's ... I know the word hero gets thrown around. You probably don't like it. It's just a little bit I know about you, but that's the true testament to what it means to be an archetype hero within a hero's journey. Really amazing.
Erik: I think it's all of us in the No Barriers community [00:35:30] are honored and fortunate to have you as a colleague.
Erik: And it's gonna be fun trekking across the Tibetan Plateau with you in June, Gretchen. Looking forward to that experience. Thanks for being with us today.
Gretchen: That you both for your kind words and for having me on your program and for all that you do. I'm gonna keep plugging along until I get to the finished line and I'm exhausted. Yes, Erik, it will [00:36:00] be fun to be trekking across wherever we're going. I look forward to it. Thank you, gentlemen.
Jeff: Thanks, Gretchen.
Erik: Alright, cool. Hey, Jeff, that was an awesome interview. A lot of takeaways-
Jeff: I just continue to be blown away by how the definition of a No Barriers participant continues to grow in my mind. I've been with you since the beginning [00:36:30] and watched the program evolve. There's some stories that are outstanding, but Gretchen's may be the most because she really exemplifies, embodies what it means to be a warrior and to be a hero. Give me your bullet points of what you take away mostly from that conversation with Gretchen.
Erik: I think it's [00:37:00] just such authentic lessons of leadership, none of this stuff that you hear in Hollywood or fictional books. It's real. It's so real. It's somebody who's bled their message. I love stories like that. That personally inspires me. I like what she talked about it terms of what she talked about, a hole of when she got hurt. A hole being formed and you gotta fill that up. I love that analogy. Yeah, I think even a psychological loss [00:37:30] is like a hole. You gotta fill that up. What do you fill it up with? You fill it up with purpose, with mission, with your team, with service, with love, with empathy. That's powerful for me.
Jeff: And the fact that ... I find it so profound that this woman literally was probably a child and knew she was going to be of service to other people. You can just tell it. It's just in her genetic [00:38:00] code this was going to be her path whether she's gonna embrace it or not. It's just who she is. I find that so fascinating. Then to have it pulled right out from under her, the ability and the venue to be able to engage and inspire and lead from the front for her soldiers. I think she mentioned it, the idea that could've [00:38:30] just sat and spun. She could've just fallen right off the cliff, but she chose not to. You and I have heard it plenty of times in all the warriors that we've done trips with and have gone through the program, I feel like that is the universal core message is my leg is one thing, my PTSD is one thing, my hearing is one thing. Just like Gretchen said, the thing that hurts the most is I'm not with my people. [00:39:00] I lost that purpose and I need to rediscover it. I'm so happy for her that she continues to find that through this program.
Erik: Still building that map. I love it. Anyway, thank you. It was an awesome interview. If people want to learn more about No Barriers, go to nobarriersusa.org. We have a lot of events coming up. We have our What's Your Everest event out here in Colorado. We got a summit coming up in October [00:39:30] in Manhattan down the Intrepid aircraft carrier. In Central Park, we're gonna have an amazing line-up where you can come out and celebrate the No Barriers life. Just check us out and we'll keep coming to you with amazing people like Gretchen. Thanks, Jeff. No Barriers.