America's VetDogs Graduate Honored At The ESPYS

We are thrilled to announce that one of our own – two-time America’s VetDogs graduate, retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans – will be honored with the Pat Tillman Award for Service at The 2022 ESPYS!

The ESPYS airs live from the Dolby Theater in Hollywood on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT on ABC. The Pat Tillman Award for Service is given to an individual with a strong connection to sports and who has served others in a way that honors the legacy of the former NFL player and U.S. Army Ranger.

 Please join us in congratulating Gretchen on this award!

We featured Gretchen’s inspiring story in our newsletter, The VetDogs Sentinel, in 2015. Gretchen was teamed with her first service dog, Aura, earlier that year. In 2020, she returned to America’s VetDogs to train with her current service dog, Rusty, who will be by her side at The ESPYS.

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Originally published in America’s VetDogs Sentinel, Vol. 6, No. 1, Summer 2015:

Gretchen Evans: An Advocate for Soldiers Gets Her Own

Gretchen's Story 
After she graduated high school, Gretchen Evans went to college for a year, but when she was on her own financially, she decided to enlist to take advantage of the Montgomery GI Bill. She hadn’t planned on an Army career, but once she was in, “I found my niche, and I loved it. I had a great career.” By the time she retired, Evans had attained the rank of command sergeant major, the senior non-commissioned rank in the Army. To rise to this rank requires a great deal of hard work and dedication. “I always raised my hand to say, ‘I’ll go; I’ll do that,’” Evans recalls. “I was always looking for ways to broaden my career.” She holds five MOSs (military occupation specialties), including counterintelligence and paratrooper. A sergeant major’s job is to be an advocate for the soldier, she says, and to act as adviser to the commanding officer of a battalion, which can range in size from 300 to 1000 troops. “You’re the ‘old man’ or ‘old woman,’ as you will have it,” she laughs.Evans has served in every major military operation in which the United States has been involved, beginning with Central America up through Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, although she was assigned elsewhere during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the 1990-91 liberation of Kuwait. Evans was asked if she wanted to attend Officer Candidate School to become an officer, but ultimately she chose to remain a non-commissioned officer. “For me, I didn’t want to be the ‘guy behind the desk.’” She adds, “Once you attain a certain rank you spend more time with strategic planning, not with the troops.” And her strengths were dealing with the troops. “I’m not going to intimidate anyone by my size,” she says – she’s petite, but tough. “I learned to motivate soldiers through respect and loyalty – not only to me, but to the Army and to the country. Yelling is not my style.”

Injury and Rehabilitation
Evans was injured in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. “We were taking mortar fire at the FOB (forward operating base), and I was standing out as any good command sergeant major would, yelling, ‘Get in the bunkers!’” A mortar hit about 10 yards to her right. “The thing that saved my life was my size,” she says. “The blast moved me with the shrapnel.” A larger man would have absorbed most of it. As it was, the blast left her with traumatic brain injuries and damaged her ear - drums, leaving her with extensive hearing loss. Evans was medevaced to Landstuhl, Germany, and underwent rehabilitation. “I wasn’t so blown up,” she jokes, and other than the fact that she couldn’t hear, she could function pretty well. “I actually went back to Afghanistan,” she says. “We were within three weeks of rotating back.” She continues: “It’s a scary thing for soldiers to see someone who they think is almost ‘untouchable’ get injured.” Both she and her commanding officer thought it was important for the morale of “my troops” for her to return to Afghanistan. “It was an honor for me and important for me that I go back and fly back with them.”

After returning stateside, Evans completed her rehabilitation and retired from the Army. She is an avid runner and wasn’t going to stop just because she had retired. During one run, she was involved in an accident: A bicyclist passed her on the left, as she tried to move away, she was hit and got knocked into traffic but avoided being run over. Her team of doctors worked with her to determine what could be done to protect her safety. The Atlanta VA recommended a service dog from America’s VetDogs, but “I didn’t need a service dog,” Evans says. “I needed a dog that could hear.” Evans was invited to the January 2015 service dog class, where she was teamed with a hearing dog – a dog specially trained to perform tasks for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Her dog Aura responds to sounds (phone ringing, a knock, a doorbell, rattling at the window, etc.). She will go to the sound, return to Evans, and alert her by poking her in the leg. Then the dog will take Evans to the source of the sound. Aura can tell the difference between a fire alarm and an oven timer, for example. “I don’t even know if I can articulate what a difference this is going to make,” Evans declares. “I will go running with her – she’ll have her vest on, so some - one will be able to identify that I have some kind of handicap.” When they’re out running together, Aura has been trained to nudge Evans so Evans knows someone is behind her.

Building On Her Strengths
“I had a degree in business, but I didn’t want to be in business,” Evans says. Instead, she returned to school under the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment benefit through the VA (also known as Chapter 31) and earned her degree in psychology and sociology with the intent of helping veterans, even if she hadn’t yet determined what form that would take. Evans’s husband served as a Navy chaplain for 25 years. After his retirement, he joined the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2011 and in 2014 became the Atlanta VA’s assistant director. During a visit to the medical center, Evans was told, “You’d make a great peer counselor. Troops listen to you. They have this way of saying, ‘If Sergeant Major says this, it has to be right.’” And a new career as a peer support specialist was launched.

The respect for the rank was evident from Evans’s fellow veterans during service dog training class. Once they found out her rank, she recalls, “They quit calling me by my first name,” even after she told them, “We’re all students here; we are on equal footing.” Their response? They could never call her by her first name, and for the remainder of the class, she was “Sergeant Major.” And on Celebration Sunday – the day when puppy raisers and sponsors get to meet the people whose lives they have changed – Evans was asked by her three classmates to be the class representative. She touched on how special and honored she felt to hear the stories of her fellow veterans, how “I loved them instantly; they were ‘mine’ instantly.” They had all received career-ending injuries, Evans said. “One day, we were fighting for our country, serving, and then something happened. For some of us, it has taken a very long time to get to where we are today. The choice that was given to each and every one of us was, ‘Do I stay here in this diminished state and play the new hand that’s been dealt me, or do I move on?’ And it’s obvious, we four, we band of brothers, decided to move on.” When they enlisted, they took a vow, but now, she said, as she motioned for “her guys” to stand, “We decided to take another vow. Our vow to you is this: From this day forward, we will represent this organization with our duty, our honor, our commitment, our loyalty, our love to you, to each other, to our dogs.” And with an emotional “thank you,” she took her seat to a standing ovation.