GCU student’s combat heroism earns high honor
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
The soldier ran from a chopper, lowered to collect the wounded of a convoy truck hit by an improvised explosive device, and shouted to Gregory Waters.
“There are supposed to be four casualties. Where is the fourth?”
“I am the fourth,” Waters said. “But I’m the only medic here. I can’t leave.”
Waters fought off the enemy and aided the wounded despite his own injuries in Afghanistan on July 30, 2008, and 11 years later was given the second highest military medal a soldier can receive, the Distinguished Service Cross, awarded to only a handful in the entire war in Afghanistan.
The award to Sgt. 1st Class Waters, a Grand Canyon University online student in the College of Fine Arts and Production, in early June came after a Pentagon review board determined the acts of valor were worth a higher designation than the Silver Star Medal he had received.
“If you read what others have done to win it, I find myself in unbelievable company,” said Waters, 35, of Berkley, Michigan. “It’s humbling to be in that company.”
Waters didn’t think he was destined to be a war hero. As an Indiana high-schooler, he loved art, but he couldn’t afford college when he didn’t get a scholarship. A U.S. Army recruiter said they could help with that, so he enlisted in the Army Reserves in 2003 before going active duty three years later.
When he was deployed to Afghanistan, Waters said his “Reaper platoon” of the 506th Infantry Regiment was in the thick of battle many times.
“It wasn’t my first IED blast. I’d had others. At that point, it was old hat,” he said. “The military is a family. Those guys you are with, you are around them 24-7. The bond you forge with them — you never want to be left out.”
Even when his life was on the line.
Waters was in the lead truck of the four-vehicle convoy, joking around, when there was a blast.
“I remember hearing screaming, ‘Doc! Doc! Help us!’ I remember trying to get out of the truck. I remember going back to the truck to pull people out.”
Witnesses had to fill in the rest. Waters had been knocked unconscious, his face bloodied with lacerations and a disk in his back damaged from the blast. He came to and began helping immediately.
Instead of running for cover, he remained with his fellow soldiers while under intense enemy small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade fire, Army officials said. He helped retrieve three wounded soldiers from the vehicle and moved them to safety while engaging the enemy to provide cover fire for the rest of the platoon. Then he administered aid and returned to the destroyed vehicle under heavy fire to engage the enemy for the safe evacuation.
Two months ago, he got a Facetime call notifying him of his honor, second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor in the military awards.
“It was my bosses’ bosses’ boss,” he said of the general on the line. “Thank God I had a haircut.”
“People who don’t understand sacrifice or commitment to service may think Sgt. 1st Class Waters was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I believe he was in the right place at the right time,” said Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, who leads the U.S. Army Recruiting Command and presented the honor to Waters. “His decision to join the Army ensured he was right where he needed to be when he was needed.”
Waters said it was a testament to his training that he can’t remember what occurred, but his actions were automatic.
“Medics are trained so it’s all muscle memory. You just react,” he said. “You find that calm in the action when you take care of the casualties.”
After healing, Waters returned for a second deployment to Afghanistan in 2010-11 before he was assigned to recruiting. He didn’t like staying behind on the third deployment but knew his body was beat up and he couldn’t give it his all.
Because of his traumatic brain injury, the husband and father of three had intense headaches and lost his sense of time. But he recovered enough to excel in Army recruitment.
“If you’ve got something you’ve got to do, do it 110%,” he said. “That’s the way I was raised.”
Waters continued to apply that philosophy when he decided to revisit the college dream that had eluded him nearly 20 years before. He enrolled at GCU, where his wife, Jill, had graduated with a nursing degree two years earlier.
“I love it,” he said of his major in advertising, which allowed him to explore his creative side in graphic design. “I was looking for a school that had an advertising degree that also had arts. Graphics is great, but if you don’t have the marketing piece you don’t understand the whys.”
He said he has been able to meet people from many different backgrounds in his 10 online courses.
“I’m having conversations with people with a different set of positions than me, but I’m still able to communicate. That’s the heart of advertising,” he said.
Waters wants to be prepared for life after the Army by having a college degree — just as he was prepared on the battlefield, where he refused assistance and didn’t ask to be taken to safety. No one died that day.
“It is absolutely paramount as a medic that you know how to do your job,” he said. “It’s nice to know that I did my job.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.