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Courage Under Fire: Master Sgt. William 'Spanky' Gibson's Life of Leadership

Friday, June 24, 2011

By Tom Sileo 

Master Sgt. William “Spanky” Gibson was on a long day’s final patrol as he led a team of four Marines on a house-to-house search through Ramadi, Iraq, on May 16, 2006.  Along with Navy SEALs and a team of Iraqi soldiers trying to pierce the heart of the insurgency, Master Sgt. Gibson and his Marines knew they were in danger before a hellish outburst of gunfire began.

“One of the guys was shot first, and I was shot second,” Master Sgt. Gibson told the USO.  “My Marine was shot in the chest, but a plate stopped it, and the SEALs were dragging me into a courtyard so a medic could work on me.”

Firing back at enemy snipers as he was being pulled to safety, Gibson’s condition worsened as the chaotic battle intensified.

“I was shot through the left knee,” the Marine said.  “My leg was dangling like a noodle.”

Gibson, who had served in Operation Desert Storm and the Somalia conflict before deploying to Iraq at age 35, was seasoned enough to fully comprehend the seriousness of his wounds.  But as roaring gunfire roared echoed through Ramadi’s streets, the battle-tested leader’s chief concern was not himself.

“I didn’t care about my injury,” Gibson said.  “I was wondering about my guys getting back safely.”WGibson_quote_1 

Before he left Iraq, Gibson’s left leg was amputated.  But incredibly, the wounded warrior said that wasn’t the most harrowing moment of his ordeal.  It was the helpless feeling as he was taken from the combat zone to a nearby base, and eventually flown out of the country on a C-17 transport plane.

“I’m lying there without my gear and weapon,” Gibson, who repeatedly called himself “fortunate” for getting the chance to deploy to Iraq, recalled.  “I thought ‘oh crap, I guess I’m going home.’”

Eighteen months later, with his prosthetic leg disguised by camouflage pants and a limp that was barely noticeable, Master Sgt. Gibson walked off another C-17 plane on the same base in Iraq.  After countless surgeries, rigorous training, endless paperwork, and unparalleled persistence, he became the first above-the-knee American amputee to return to combat.

“For the rest of my life, that is one of the most defining moments that I’ll ever have,” the Marine said. 

Because of Gibson’s genuine humility and belief in spotlighting service over self, most Marines around the wounded warrior didn’t realize they were witnessing history that day.  But for Gibson, the real honor was being back in the position to lead.

“If you can lead in combat, there is no greater honor than to lead our Marines,” he said.  “We hate combat and it’s the dirty part of our job, but we are proud to do what we promise when we raise our hands and say we’ll serve.”

As American troops face continuing danger in Iraq and Afghanistan, caring for wounded warriors is an urgent national priority.  On this critical front, Gibson sees genuine leadership as the USO launches Operation Enduring Care, a $100 million campaign to support America’s wounded warriors and their families.

“Who better to understand the needs of a wounded warrior and service member than the USO?” the Marine, who now works at the Pentagon, said.  “I think it’s a natural selection for the USO to provide a facility for wounded warriors and their families to get back to their normal lives…to transition back to normal lives.”

On Monday, June 27, the USO broke ground on its first Wounded Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va.  The second will be at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.  Each center, which will be operated by the USO of Metropolitan Washington, will serve as a 25,000-square-foot example of our nation’s commitment to wounded warriors. 

Photo credit: Margi Kirst / USOGibson, a living example of sacrifice and perseverance, will be at Monday’s Fort Belvoir ceremony.  He wants to give back to an organization that recently put him in the position to experience another defining moment: giving the race command at the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  The May 29 event fell on his 22nd anniversary in the Marine Corps, as well as the 71st birthday of his father, a disabled Vietnam veteran.

“To be taken out there in front of 140,000 people, I was so excited, and I wanted to roar into the microphone,” Gibson said.  “I was ecstatic.”

While he’ll never forget screaming “gentlemen, start your engines” in front of a national television audience, the Marine’s USO roots go much deeper.

“The first time I got involved with the USO was in 1989 when I sat down in a USO center, had a free drink, and sat there and watched TV,” the grateful Marine said. 

“I feel obligated to give some of what I got from the USO back,” Gibson continued.  “It’s my way of saying thank you for everything that they’ve done for me.”

As the Marine put so eloquently, there is no greater honor than to lead.  At this decisive moment, with thousands of wounded warriors and their families needing our help, a once in a lifetime chance has presented itself.

“There are no limits to the opportunities and connections that will come out of this,” Gibson said of Operation Enduring Care.  “The USO has connections to everyone because they’ve been around for so long.”

Master Sgt. William “Spanky” Gibson lost his leg in Iraq before courageously returning to stand beside his fellow Marines.  Today, we stand beside him.

Learn more about Operation Enduring Care. 

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