One of Vet to Vet Maine’s newest veteran volunteers, Gretchen Evans, will have a lot to talk about when she is matched to a veteran friend. Vet to Vet Maine recruits veterans to be volunteer companions to other veterans who need a friend. Currently the program has 80 volunteer visitors who connect with fellow veterans in York and Cumberland counties.
Command Sergeant Major Evans (Retired) just recently appeared on TV as a competitor in The World’s Toughest Race Eco-Challenge Fiji, an ultra-endurance 11-day race covering more than 460 miles of beautiful but unforgiving terrain. The event was hosted by survivalist Bear Grylls, best known for his television series Man vs. Wild. The series of ten episodes recently premiered on Amazon Prime and can be streamed online. Gretchen was part of Team Unbroken, a group she put together comprised of two veterans, including herself, and two civilians—all with disabilities.
Gretchen and her husband, Robert Evans, CHC, CAPT (RET) U. S. Navy, a Bowdoin graduate with fond memories of Maine, settled in Brunswick in January 2020. Gretchen’s path to Maine, though, took an arduous but exciting detour, reflective of the challenges she has welcomed throughout her career.
During a deployment in Afghanistan in 2006, Gretchen was wounded in a rocket attack. When she awoke in a hospital in Germany, she learned that, along with severe internal head injuries and multiple other wounds, she was, and remains, profoundly deaf. She credits the Wounded Warrior Program and America’s VETDOGS and other veteran-centric organizations for their support as she recovered from her wounds, traumatic brain injury, and PTSD.
Gretchen was awarded the U.S. Army Bronze Star, inducted into the U.S. Army Hall of Fame, and named Outstanding Combat Female Veteran of North Carolina in 2019.
Says Susan Gold, executive director of Vet to Vet Maine, “We have an extraordinary volunteer in Gretchen Evans. We know as a Vet to Vet Maine volunteer she will be an inspiration to other veterans in the program who are dealing with their own struggles. We feel very fortunate to have her as a volunteer.”
Now that the reality TV show is available to viewers, Gretchen is free to discuss her adventures competing with Team Unbroken. Gretchen’s fellow Vet, Army Sergeant Keith Knoop, is a U.S. Army Purple Heart recipient whose right leg was severely damaged in a 2009 improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Iraq. Also, on Team Unbroken were civilians Dr. Anne Bailey, who manages her Type I diabetes with several insulin injections daily, and Hal Riley, who contends with a debilitating back injury from a skiing accident. They were supported by their logistics team member, Cale Yarborough, who suffers from seizures.
Hundreds of teams applied to be part of The World’s Toughest Race Eco-Challenge Fiji. The producers narrowed the field to 66 teams. At first, the team selection committee turned down Team Unbroken, telling them their injuries would put their lives in danger. Gretchen and her teammates persisted, and Team Unbroken became the first team made up entirely of people with disabilities ever to compete in an ultra-endurance race.
The Eco-Challenge crew
Team Unbroken was one of only 10 teams featured in the film series, from experienced adventure junkies to first-time racers like themselves. Team Unbroken’s objective was to open doors for other wounded and injured people who want to do what others would consider impossible—to push through the pain and fatigue that comes with being injured. “We want to show people how adaptive anyone can be.”
Team members were expected to complete a variety of strenuous and dangerous legs of the race, such as ascending and repelling cliffs and waterfalls, white-water rafting, stand-up paddleboarding, mountain biking, and navigating open ocean passages and braided river systems and dense jungle by compass. Despite the pain, “We remained upbeat and had such fun together,” Gretchen said.
“We had to get good at signaling and understanding each other,” she recalls. By training together for eight months prior to the race, they learned to convey information with just a look. It was especially challenging at night when Gretchen could not read lips. They created flashlight signals to relay information such as Stop or Come to me.
Gretchen said that the race takes its name Eco-Challenge seriously. The producers introduced the competitors to the culture of the region, highlighted the dramatic scenery in their videography, and ensured that the environment remained pristine when the participants and 34 production companies—and their staff, drones, and helicopters—departed.
Lack of experience, bad weather, and navigation errors prevented Team Unbroken from making it to the finish line, but Team Unbroken is not finished. They have applied to compete in the next Eco-Challenge in Patagonia in 2021. That team will include three women and a man in the four-person race team, with a support person to handle logistics. They expect to hear if they are selected in October. Even before the announcement is made, they will begin training together, using Maine as one of their bases. The White Maintains, the coast of Maine, and the capricious New England weather will help prepare them for climbing mountains, kayaking through rough waters, and meeting whatever other challenges the race director can think up to take advantage of the beautiful but stark geography of Patagonia.
Gretchen asks viewers who want to help Team Unbroken get to Patagonia to binge-watch all ten episodes of The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, give the show “five stars,” and plug Team Unbroken and its compelling message.
Gretchen plans to speak to veterans through Vet to Vet Maine, as well as to school groups, civic organizations, and businesses, to share her philosophy of using challenges and fellowship to bring out the best in yourself and your team. Gretchen says she wants to help her military comrades—and others—to think beyond age, illness, or disability. “One individual may find disabilities insurmountable, but by being part of a team, you can overcome those challenges. As you learn what you have in common, you can help each other remain active and integrated into our community.”
Thanks to Mary Cerullo and Gretchen Evans for this story.