Army Col. Greg Gadson lost both his legs in Iraq when an improvised explosive device hit his military vehicle in 2007. Since that devastating injury, he has adjusted to what he calls "a new normal," using prosthetics including a next-generation "bionic" knee.
And the 1989 West Point graduate has thrived. He has remained on active duty, earning a graduate degree from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, leading the Army's Wounded Warrior Program for two years, inspiring the New York Giants in the run-up to their 2008 Super Bowl victory, and even acting in last year's big-budget movie Battleship.
Now he's serving as the garrison commander of Fort Belvoir, outside of Washington, D.C., in Northern Virginia.
Gadson says he can't pretend to know exactly how the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing are feeling, but there are some commonalities in their types of injuries and in what lies ahead for the marathon amputees.
"When we as amputees lose limbs in a violent circumstance, it's very abrupt," he says. "It's not like you had cancer or diabetes and had time to adjust to it."
Gadson spoke to NationalGeographic.com about the realities of recovering from limb loss.
What's involved, physically, in healing after such a devastating injury?
A lot of people think you lose your limb and a few weeks later you strap [a prosthetic] on. It's not like that. You may face infection. I lost 50 pounds. I lost both legs above the knee. It's a traumatic event and your body has to reset itself. I'm a bilateral, above-the-knee amputee. That's pretty serious. I lost four joints as opposed to someone who lost limbs below the knee, who lost two joints. We used to kid the guys who lost limbs below the knee that they had paper cuts!
It takes weeks and months to recover. But less than three months after losing my limbs, I was already putting on a prosthetic. It's uncomfortable; I remember it feeling like a chore. It used to take me ten minutes to put on each leg. Now I can be having a conversation at the same time and it's just like I'm putting on my pants. I can have both of them on in two minutes.
It changes things from how you drive a vehicle to how you move around your house, and how you access things. I have a roll-in shower in my house now.
But relatively speaking, the physical wounds heal much quicker than the mental ones. That's the long road ahead.
What's that mental journey like?
When someone has a traumatic injury it changes your life and so many other lives—your family is also wounded. It sounds like a cliché, but it's true: you have to create a new normal. You have to redefine yourself and to reinvent yourself.
When it's a traumatic event, there's bound to be posttraumatic stress. I bet you that for two years after I was wounded, there wasn't some part of my day where I didn't relive the moment where I was blown up. And then at some point I didn't think about it. It eventually works its way out of your system. But you have to deal with it. And for some people it never stops.
There's nothing great about losing a limb, but when you lose it, it's gone. You never go back to where you are. Other injuries you may think that you've got to get back to where you were. When you lose something like that, it's not coming back. That may help you move forward.
Are you still using the computerized Power Knees?
Those are still experimental. I've been off them for a while. Those are designed for a single-leg amputee and I was the first bilateral amputee to wear two of them. I figured out on a pretty consistent basis how to walk on them, but they're a little bit unpredictable. I don't mind falling, but I don't want to fall and hit my head on something. I'm using another prosthetic made by the same company.
What does it feel like when you do use the Power Knees?
I have more stability, range, endurance, and power. It's bionic. It's powered, so I'm not burning as much energy.
Do you have advice for new amputees in Boston?
I go up to Walter Reed every month. When I see folks with new injuries I tell them: I know it's hard, but the fact is that you're talking to me and the worst of it is over if you want it to be. And be grateful. You're alive.