July 4th, 2012
08:37 AM ET

Iraq vet says adversity will come - be ready!

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed.  Army Major Daniel Gade was wounded in action twice in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He continues his active duty military career as an instructor at West Point, where he teaches American Politics. Gade also inspires many as an endurance athlete - he just completed a 3,000 mile bike ride across the United States.

When I woke up in the hospital in February 2005 after having been hurt in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Iraq on January 10, I knew that I was seriously hurt.

My right leg was missing at the hip, my skull and spine were fractured, my entire abdomen was open up to my sternum, and I had limited use of my hands due to nerve damage.

That wasn’t the worst of it, either: I had many different forms of bacteria colonizing my wounds, any of which had the potential to kill me. In short, I was mangled.

Just a few weeks before that, I had been the commander of 120 soldiers in Iraq, conducting combat missions on a daily basis. I was at the top of my game: highly competent, fearless (too busy to be scared), and physically fit. I knew that I was in grave danger at every moment, but I truly thought that I would either be killed or that I would return home in one piece.

I never thought that the truth would be somewhere in between: that I would be badly hurt and wake up in a hospital bed.

At that moment, I had a critical choice to make. Do I go forward and conquer this latest challenge, or do I allow myself to be defeated by these awful circumstances?

I’ll admit that there were times when it seemed as if the circumstances would win. My lowest day was when the doctors told me that I would never regain full use of my hands, and another low day was when I realized that I would never run again while watching runners ascend and descend the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

We all face these kinds of situations, though! Sure, not everyone gets blown up in a combat zone, but we all "wake up on our backs in the ditch" metaphorically.

Whether it’s a divorce, the death of a loved one, a dramatic failure in an important part of life, or even a financial disaster such as a stock market crash or extended period of unemployment, we all face daunting circumstances at some point in our lives.

Often, what we hear from others is “you’ll make it through” or some variant of that message. The truth is somewhat different.

If everyone could triumph over difficult circumstances, why does our society have so many examples of people who’ve simply failed at their moment of greatest adversity? Why so many failed marriages? Why so many people who choose the path of least resistance and end up forgotten, passed by?

I believe I know the answer.

I believe that the reason people fail in their moment of greatest adversity is because they have not prepared for it beforehand. When the race starts, when the doorbell rings with terrible news, when the IED goes off and leaves you maimed is NOT the time to start preparing your character.

Instead, you can begin to develop your character now by making the hard right choices over the easy wrong ones. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but each of us is either developing our character or eroding it with every decision we make.

One of the great blessings of my life is the chance I’ve had to speak around the country to audiences from a few dozen to a few thousand, and to bring this message: Adversity is coming. Prepare your character now so that when it does come, you can thrive and not just survive.

The reason I ride my bicycle in things like the Race Across America, the reason I do Ironman triathlons, and the reason I stayed in the Army after I got hurt are all the same.

By doing so, I can live my life to inspire others. I can show people, that it is possible to overcome adversity, and that heart and character matter more than our temporary struggles.

soundoff (67 Responses)
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.