Today’s guest is Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Gretchen Evans, a retired army veteran, author, athlete, speaker, and mentor. CSM Evans is a highly decorated female veteran who began her journey when she entered the United States Army at just 19 years old.
She worked her way up to CSM, the highest rank an enlisted soldier can achieve. In 2006, CSM Evans’ world changed when she was severely wounded by incoming fire while serving in Afghanistan. The rocket blast caused a traumatic brain injury, internal injuries, and complete hearing loss.
After retiring from service, her transition into civilian life was difficult. But with grit, gumption, resilience, and determination, CSM Evans navigated her changed life and found a new passion and purpose advocating for veterans of all services.
Today, she pays it forward by improving the lives of her fellow veterans by actively serving as a mentor, coach, and community activist. In 2019, CSM Evans assembled a mixed-ability team of disabled combat veterans and civilians to compete in the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji. Her team was the first totally disabled team to ever compete.
Team Unbroken inspired millions with their resolve to not let their injuries define who or what they could achieve in life. Listen in for some great takeaways about Gretchen’s journey through the ranks of the United States Military to advocating for veterans and those faced with disabilities.
You will want to hear this episode if you are interested in…
- Learn more about Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans [5:30]
- CSM Evans shares her experience at the ESPYS [7:36]
- The similarities between the military and professional sports [10:08]
- CSM Evans’ connection to the Pat Tillman Memorial USO Center [11:34]
- What helped CSM Evans through her tours in Afghanistan [12:59]
- What winning the Pat Tillman Award means to CSM Evans [14:44]
- How Pat has changed her life to honor Pat Tillman’s legacy [19:05]
- How CSM Evans’ experience with Team Unbroken has transformed her life [23:39]
- How CSM Evans’ service dogs Rusty and Aurora have impacted her [31:19]
- Why being the parent of a service member is different than serving [36:14]
- Why connection is so important for Veterans to experience [38:06]
- CSM Evans’ encouragement for those in a dark place right now [43:25]
- What CSM Evans did today that put her in the right mindset for success [45:15]
What winning the Pat Tillman Award means to CSM Evans
Pat Tillman walked away from a multi-million-dollar contract with the Cardinals to enlist as a private. He went to Ranger school because he felt called to service. CSM Evans notes that it spoke volumes to those already enlisted, knowing someone like him cared so much about his country and fellow service members that he would join the fight.
When he was killed, it was devastating. The legacy that he left behind is one that CSM Evans strives to emulate, especially now that she’s receiving an award named after him. When she was first selected to receive the award, she felt like she needed to operate on a different playing field. Because when you’re a Pat Tillman award recipient, it means something. CSM Evans knew it came with a responsibility to live a life worth his sacrifice.
She did a self-check and decided to change her life for the better. She looks for opportunities to share Pat Tillman’s story about living a life beyond yourself. She shares how she overcomes barriers and doesn’t let her disabilities define who she is or what she can accomplish—and how others can do the same.
CSM Evans doesn’t take anything for granted. She wants to continue Tillman’s legacy through the next generation so he’s never forgotten. It’s about taking what you have and doing the most with it. It doesn’t take a lot to be kind and thoughtful, and to live your dreams. You just need to have a plan and work toward it.
How CSM Evans’ experience with Team Unbroken has transformed her life
CSM Evans was recovering from surgery when Erik Weihenmayer—the first blind man to summit Mount Everest—called her and told her they needed to put a team together for the World’s Toughest Race.
When they filled out the lengthy application, there was one section that said, “If you have any injuries, list them here.” It took her nearly three pages to cover the injuries their team had sustained. She sent in the application and got an immediate no.
After many emails advocating for her team, she said “Don’t judge us based on our disabilities. We are good athletes and are very capable.” She got on a Zoom call with the producer and race director. She asked to be put on the same playing field and if they washed out, it was on them. But if he said no, they’d never know if they could do something as hard as the World’s Toughest Race. He couldn’t say no.
Six months after the release of the series, no one cared—or even knew—who won the race. But everyone knew who Team Unbroken was. Mark Burnett asked them to keep racing and asked CSM Evans to keep telling her story.
So Team Unbroken continues to compete in all sorts of races. Four individuals who had been kicked to the curb do not let themselves be defined by what’s happened to them. Team Unbroken continues to allow CSM Evans to share her story and help others overcome the same challenges she faced.
Why connection is so important for Veterans to experience
CSM Evans emphasizes that all branches of the military work as a team toward the same mission. Each service member is an integral part of the success of that mission. They’re counting on each other. You’re with these people 24/7.
That’s why CSM Evans notes that when you leave the military, it’s like leaving a family. It’s hard to replicate that level of connection outside of the military and it takes a while to find new connections that are as powerful. It’s a difficult transition.
Veterans need to find a connection wherever they are, and most of the time it isn’t with other veterans. They have to find civilians that desire that same connection, i.e. their “rope team.” You share your triumphs and failures. You’re tied to each other. If one of you trips and falls, your rope team steps in to get you back on your feet.
CSM Evans’ encouragement for those in a dark place right now
When CSM Evans was struggling through life post-military and couldn’t find her way, she had to remind herself who she was. The rocket that caused her injury didn’t take the life that was still inside her. The rocket couldn’t touch her soul.
She had to find that dim light and remember who she was and take the next step. She would not give up. She had to find a new passion and purpose in life. Find what makes your heart sing and brings out the best in you.
Listen to the whole episode to learn more about CSM Gretchen Evans and the amazing legacy she lives out every single day.
Resources & People Mentioned
Connect with Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans
Texas native Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans (retired), a highly decorated female veteran, began her journey when she entered the United States Army at 19 years old. Shortly after completing Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood (Missouri), CSM Evans became an Intelligence Analyst for Commander in Chief (Europe), before studying German and Italian at the Defense Language Institute (California) as a Counterintelligence Agent. Following her graduation from language school, CSM Evans attended Basic Airborne training at Fort Benning (Georgia). Gretchen is a graduate of the Sergeant Majors Academy at Fort Bliss (Texas). She held leadership roles in multiple combat engagements and had several other deployments throughout her 27 years in the Army. Most recently, Gretchen received the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2022 ESPY Awards broadcast on ABC.
Throughout her years in the service, CSM Evans worked her way up to Command Sergeant Major – the highest rank an enlisted soldier can achieve. In this role during her final assignment, she was responsible for the security and personnel on bases and forwarding operation bases in Afghanistan, overseeing more than 30,000 ground troops. She earned numerous medals and awards, including the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation Medal, and Global War on Terrorism ribbons, multiple Meritorious Service Medals and numerous other awards.
In 2006, CSM Evans’ world changed in a millisecond when she was severely wounded by incoming fire while serving in Afghanistan. The rocket blast caused her debilitating injuries, including a traumatic brain injury, internal injuries and the loss of all hearing.
After her combat injury, recent PTSD diagnosis and subsequent retirement from service, her transition from military life to civilian life was difficult. Her heart was broken and she felt hopeless, not only due to the injuries she sustained but also due to the sudden loss — of her military family, her rope team, the fellowship and the mission she had found and loved, and the military experience that had become her entire life. With grit, gumption, resilience and determination CSM Evans navigated through a changed life and found her new passion and purpose which is advocating for veterans of all services.
Today, CSM Evans is determined to pay it forward by focusing her efforts on improving the lives of her fellow veterans by actively serving as a mentor, coach, and community activist. Gretchen is an ambassador for nonprofits No Barriers USA, America’s VetDogs, the Dogtopia Foundation, and the U. S. Army Women’s Foundation. She continues to serve as a board member of several veteran-focused organizations and is a lifetime member of the Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a Wounded Warrior Alumni. Gretchen is a trustee at Excelsior College. In 2017, she published her first book, Leading from the Front, and in 2018, she co-led a group of youth with mixed abilities on an expedition to Nepal.
In 2019, CSM Evans assembled a mixed ability team of disabled combat veterans and civilians with disabilities to compete in the World’s Toughest Race in Fiji, hosted by Bear Grylls and produced by Mark Burnett (Survivor, Shark Tank). Her team, UNBROKEN, was the first totally disabled team to ever compete in the World’s Toughest Race. Team UNBROKEN inspired millions with their resolve to not let their injuries define who or what they could achieve in life. Out of 66 teams that competed in the World’s Toughest Race, Team UNBROKEN is one of ten teams featured presently on Amazon Prime, World’s Toughest Race. Team UNBROKEN continues to participate in races, events and adventures all over the world, inspiring many more people, regardless of their ability, to live life to the fullest.
Gretchen is a nationally known motivational speaker, speaking to both large corporations, businesses and Veteran organizations including Meta, Wells Fargo, Prudential and many others. She was inducted into the U. S. Veteran Hall of Fame in 2019 and the U. S. Army Women’s Hall of Fame in March 2021 for her outstanding meritorious service with the United States Army and her community. Gretchen’s story is featured in the new 2020 bestselling book, What’s Within You.
Gretchen has been featured on the Megyn Kelly Show, the Today Show and CBS Courage in Sports. She also has been highlighted in multiple written media publications. She is an avid hiker, marathon runner, cyclist and adventure racer.
CSM Evans currently resides in Brunswick, Maine, with her husband Robert, a retired Navy Chaplain, and their two service dogs Aura and Rusty.
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