About a month ago, we received one of those emails that stops you in your tracks. The Bourbon Trail Relay organizers reached out to let us know about an impressive team that had just signed up to run the relay in 2023. As we read more about this inspiring group of athletes, we knew we had to get the word out about them.
It all started with Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans. In 2006, she was severely injured by a rocket blast in Afghanistan that resulted in total hearing loss, a traumatic brain injury, severe depression and PTSD, and the end of her military career.
Evans went on to work directly with several veterans advocacy groups by mentoring and coaching fellow veterans with similar experiences. Sadly, she kept hearing stories of athletes that were told they could not participate in certain physical activities due to their injuries or disabilities.
Empowered by the stories of her comrades, and imbued with the belief that disabilities do not define who we are or what we can accomplish, Evans founded Team UNBROKEN with other like-minded athletes. The team consists of five people, all with unique backgrounds and injuries or disabilities. They strive to be an example of inspiration and hope for the mixed-ability community.
Here is our conversation with the founder of Team UNBROKEN, author, athlete, and retired Army Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail (KBT): Tell us about your 27 years of service with the United States Army.
Evans: I loved every day of my 27 years of service in the Army. It was an environment that allowed me to grow and thrive, surrounded by others who wanted to serve their country. I was a counterintelligence agent for most of my career, and a paratrooper. I lived all over the world. I rose to the rank of Command Sergeant Major which is the highest rank an enlisted person can hold in the Army.
KBT: In 2006 you suffered an injury from a mortar attack. Tell us about that day and how it changed the trajectory of the life you envisioned.
Evans: I was visiting troops at a Forward Operating Base in eastern Afghanistan when we came under rocket fire, we deployed the quick reaction force to stop the rockets. As I was yelling for the troops to get into the bunkers for protection a mortar round landed to my right and detonated and blew me head first into one of the concrete bunkers. As a result of this blast I lost all hearing, incurred a traumatic brain injury and have severe PTSD.
KBT: How did Team UNBROKEN form and what is its mission?
Evans: I formed Team UNBROKEN to compete in the World’s Toughest Race which is currently airing on Amazon Prime. Our mission is to inspire and encourage others like ourselves who have endured life-altering injuries, illnesses and traumas to not let these challenges and barriers define who they are or what they can accomplish. We believe with a strong rope team, grit, gumption and resilience that anyone can live their best life. We compete in athletic events to be visible role models of the power of doing hard things and the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle. We believe in the No Barriers mantra “What’s Within You Is Stronger Than What’s In Your Way.”
KBT: Tell us more about Team UNBROKEN and its members.
Evans: We are a non profit entity with No Barriers USA. We are funded by donations. Team members are Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) Gretchen Evans, U. S. Army, deaf, traumatic brain injury PTSD; Major (Ret.) Daniel Runyon U. S. Army, traumatic brain injury, PTSD. Dan lost his wife to suicide; Dr. Anne Bailey, Innovation Chief Veterans Affairs, Type 1 Diabetic and lost her oldest brother, West an Army combat Veteran to suicide; Kevin Hodder, elite adventure racer and race director; Curtis Drafton, Veteran U. S. Army, combat Veteran PTSD; Rusty Evans Hearing Service Dog to CSM (Ret.) Gretchen Evans.
KBT: Were you an endurance athlete prior to your injury in 2006?
Evans: Yes, I had competed in over 40 Marathons and 3 ultraraces before my injuries.
KBT: You’ve participated in some very difficult races. Tell us about a race that stands out as the most difficult.
Evans: By far the World’s Toughest Race in Fiji was our toughest race.
KBT: Is this your first visit to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?
Evans: Yes this is our first visit to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
KBT: How did you choose the Bourbon Trail Relay?
Evans: We chose the race because we can run as a team. We also loved the idea of running through beautiful Kentucky and we love Bourbon.
KBT: Do you see yourself slowing down anytime soon?
Evans: No, not at all. In 2023 we will be participating in the Bataan Death March, Everest Challenge at Mt. Stratton, Iron Man Alaska and hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim. We also hope to have multiple speaking engagements to share our story.
KBT: Lastly, what advice would you give to someone facing an adversity in their life?
Evans: As you face adversity, find a rope team of people to journey with you. Use the adversity to grow stronger and more resilient and also to learn how to engage your grit. Adversity brings out our best human nature. In the end you will be propelled to help others face their own adversity which is the magic sauce of life.
If you would like to support Team Unbroken,
follow them on Instagram @teamunbrokenusa, and donate here.
ABOUT TEAM UNBROKEN
Team UNBROKEN is an adaptive athletic team founded in 2019 by Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans (Ret.). The mixed ability team competes in all types of athletic competitions, races and events. All members of Team UNBROKEN have endured some form of life-altering injury, illness, trauma, or disability. The team is made up of both veterans and civilians to model the collaboration and unity that is needed in our world.
Team UNBROKEN lives by the No Barriers mantra “What’s Within You Is Stronger Than What’s In Your Way”. The purpose of the team is to inspire people who also have faced a significant obstacle in their lives not to be defined or limited by that barrier. Team UNBROKEN serves as an example to help individuals in the midst of their struggle, to overcome their fears, face their struggles, and ultimately live fulfilling lives.
The team will be participating in a wide range of races and events all across the country in 2023. Team UNBROKEN was featured on the World’s Toughest Race, hosted by Bear Grylls, and currently airing on Amazon Prime. Learn more at nobarriersusa.org/team-unbroken/.
ABOUT GRETCHEN EVANS
Command Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Gretchen Evans serves veterans as a board member of several organizations and volunteers with The Guide Dog Foundation and America’s Vetdogs. She is a motivational speaker and author and shares her powerful story and life lessons at corporate, sports, and veteran events.
Evans entered the United States Army in September 1979 and was assigned as an Intelligence Analyst for Commander in Chief, Europe. She was a lead analyst in the Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program responsible for directing aerial reconnaissance for multiple platforms. Following her time with the Counterintelligence Agent Program at Fort Huachuca, she studied German and Italian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. After graduation, she was assigned to the 66th Military Intelligence Group, Field Office Vicenza, Italy. She was directly involved in the pursuit and subsequent release of General Dozier from his kidnappers.
Evans joined a black operations unit and attended Basic Airborne and Advance Airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and later oversaw all training for the Counterintelligence Agents and Interrogators of 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, Fort Hood, Texas. In October 2001, she was part of the ground attack when the United States began the air attack on Afghanistan. She also served as a personal security officer for Governor Huckabee and was the Command Sergeant Major of the 212th Signal Battalion.
From 2003 until her retirement, Evans deployed several times to the Middle East with her final assignment as the Command Sergeant Major of Commander, Combined Forces Command, Afghanistan. She earned numerous medals and awards to include the Combat Action Badge, the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation Medal, and Global War on Terrorism ribbons, 6 Meritorious Service Medals, and numerous other awards. She was wounded in Afghanistan by a mortar round blast, which resulted in a traumatic brain injury, total hearing loss, and other wounds.
Evans was awarded the Saginaw Valley State University Veteran Alumni of the Year in 2016 and was inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Hall of Fame March 2021. In July 2022, she was awarded the Pat Tillman Award for Service during the ESPYS.
Evans resides in Brunswick, Maine, with her husband, a Navy veteran, and two service dogs, Aura and Rusty.