For most Marines, the loss of a leg in battle would signal the end of their service, at least on the front lines. But Master Sgt. William Gibson is not like most Marines.
In May 2006, a sniper's bullet tore through Gibson's left knee during foot patrol in Ramadi, Iraq. Doctors amputated his leg above the knee and sent the 37-year-old veteran home to recuperate.
Recuperate, yes. Retire, no. Master Sgt. William Gibson – "Spanky" to his friends and fellow Marines – is nominated as one of Beliefnet's Most Inspiring People of the Year for his refusal to think of his injury as a handicap.
"I am very lucky," Gibson told Beliefnet via email from Iraq, where he was serving as a weapons coordinator at Camp Fallujah. "I knew a few who were not so lucky and I appreciate the life which I have to live. It is not much different than overcoming any obstacle. You can choose to quit or you can drive forward. My choice is forward."
It is a choice that Gibson, a Marine for 19 years, made not long after his surgery. As soon as he was up and able, Gibson began retraining with his new carbon-fiber prosthetic leg. He relearned how to run and ski. After completing the swimming section of a triathlon in the treacherous currents from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, Gibson convinced his higher-ups to send him back to Iraq.
"I am a Marine and Iraq is where Marines need to be, so I fought to come back," Gibson said. His thinking was, "If I can come back, then I am a normal Marine again."
In Feb. 2008, Gibson returned to Iraq, making him the first full-leg amputee returned to the combat zone. He served with the 1st Marine Expeditionary force for nine months. But in November he returned to the U.S. for yet another first.
He will be one of the few enlisted Marines ever to go to Washington as a Congressional Fellow, an honor usually reserved for officers. "He's a driven Marine and he's earned his selection," said Sgt. Maj. Neil O'Connell in the L.A. Times. One of the things he may advise lawmakers about: the treatment and rehabilitation of the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Looking back, Gibson credits his father, Second Class Petty Officer Gene Gibson, a Navy Seabee who is fully disabled from injuries he received serving in Vietnam, as a major inspiration. "My father was the biggest influence to rebound after amputation," Gibson said. "I have observed him fighting to stay out of a wheelchair for as long as I can remember."
And he says his amputation has given him a special perspective on his life and the world. "Every day is a new experience," he said. "I have now experienced things which I know I would have never accomplished. I find myself more eager to do the things [others] thought [I was] not capable of completing."