Combat injury in Bagdad doesn’t end military career for this soldier

Lt. Col. Bruce Gannaway. Today, Gannaway serves as the assistant dean of finance at the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy.

By John Moorehouse

Bruce Gannaway’s instincts have always served him rather well. When it comes to making good life decisions, he’s chosen the right path: deciding to enter the military, opting to appeal to remain on active duty after a combat injury, and then to leave the Army after more than two decades of service. That latter decision led Gannaway and his family to the Tri-Cities—and to his current position as the assistant dean of finance at the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy at East Tennessee State.

“I could’ve had a further road to go in the Army, had I chosen to. In some ways, with my family and where we were, it was a leap of faith,” Gannaway said. “Getting out when I did was the right choice. And certainly it’s turned out pretty well.”

Gannaway, his wife, Sarah, and their four children already were familiar with East Tennessee. He noted several extended family who lived in the area, and routine visits over the prior two decades.

“I love the mountains and the four seasons and the trees,” he said, describing Northeast Tennessee as “a very comfortable place to come. I’ve lived in Texas, in Kansas, in upstate New York. After all that it’s kind of neat that you can pick where you want to go.”

At the time Gannaway retired from the military, he held the rank of lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army and last served as commander of the Warrior Transition Battalion based at Fort Hood. That ended a wide-ranging and well-traveled career of nearly 21 years in military service and multiple honors: the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Army Achievement Medal.

After graduating from the University of North Georgia in 1998, Gannaway entered the Army as a commissioned officer with the infantry, receiving his commission through the Army ROTC program at his college. His time in the military changed in dramatic fashion on Sept. 11, 2001. After that, all the training he and his soldiers were doing had a tangible purpose.

“I was with the 101st [Airborne] at the time so I spent a lot of field time as a platoon leader and a company executive officer,” said Gannaway, who was stationed in Fort Campbell, Ky., at the time of the terrorist attacks. “You’re training because you want to be proficient … You want to go to one of the national training centers and do well. Now there’s something beyond. It made us focus a little more, pay a little more attention.”

Gannaway made his first deployment into a combat theater in 2005, joining the 101st in Iraq. He returned in 2007 when he suffered his injury—stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED).

“When it happened, it was almost anticlimactic,” Gannaway said. “We’d been out in sector today supporting another element that was attacking into a town to our north—trying to deal with what was escaping out of the town and prevent reinforcements from flowing back into the town. We’d been in the thick of it for most of the day. We were pulling back into our patrol base for the night. I just happened to put my foot where no one else had, and triggered the IED.

“I’m grateful to my guys and the training,” he added. “My medic was right there; they were on it. In some ways, it’s textbook. It’s probably better medical care than you can get here. I was on the helicopter and at the hospital and in the emergency room within the hour. It was textbook. Lucky me—I was in the rural area but I was just outside of south Baghdad.”

Gannaway had injuries to three of his limbs in the explosion, as well as a concussion. The most significant damage came to his left leg, which was amputated below the knee. After the injuries, Gannaway spent the next year rehabbing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Gannaway recalled his experiences from that challenging year:

“Early on, you’re on meds, you’re in pain, you can do little more than an hour of rehab a day,” he said. “As you get stronger and farther into rehab, you can do more. In the end, we rented a house off base. I’d drive in, I’d be there pretty much most of the morning, trying to get back into shape and used to my limb.”

As his time at Walter Reed progressed, Gannaway also found himself helping new arrivals make the transition into the facility.

“I can remember being the guy in a hospital bed that gets rolled down to the rehab center. Six months later, I’m doing balance drills, like football quick-feet drills in the rehab center with the physical therapist. You look up and there’s a new guy, just arrived, in his hospital bed, getting rolled around the rehab center,” he said. “We as the more senior folks would certainly reach out to someone that was newly arrived, [saying]‘Yes, this sucks, but we’re all in it together.’ Lots of bitter, dark humor that goes around a place like that, but we’re going to watch out for each other and pull each other along.”

The Army ultimately recommended Gannaway for medical retirement. Instead, he filed for an exception for a continuation of active duty—a request that was approved.

Gannaway, his wife, Sarah, and their children.

“I kind of felt like I had more to give,” he said regarding his reasoning to stay in the Army. “I just wasn’t ready to go. My wife thought it was crazy because I was talking about staying in when I was still in the hospital, a week or so after I was injured. Sometimes you kind of have to take a deep breath and let somebody go forward like that.”

After completing his rehab, Gannaway transitioned from combat arms to the administrative side of the military. His next stop after Walter Reed was Syracuse University, where he earned Master’s degrees in Business Administration and Public Administration in a span of 14 months. His subsequent service included a two-year stint at the Pentagon, helping manage a multibillion-dollar budget for the Military and National Intelligence Programs.

“You’ve got more data than you can manage,” Gannaway said of his time working the intelligence side of the Army. “You’ve got more intelligence than you can manage, and trying to provide timely resources that are actionable and useful for people who are trying to achieve a mission or a goal.”

From there, Gannaway was assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, where he served as comptroller. He also made one final deployment—albeit brief—to Afghanistan.

“I didn’t get out a lot with the guys,” he recalled, also noting, “You don’t want to get in the way of them and their job.

“I went so that I could experience where they lived and what they did as they went forward, which gave me better perspective when I went back stateside and advocated for what they needed with our headquarters,” he added.

From there, Gannaway transitioned to Fort Hood and his oversight role at Walter Reed, where he served as commander of the Warrior Transition unit. He called that position his “give-back job.”

Lt. Col. Bruce Gannaway, who was wounded in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom, takes command of Fort Hood’s Warrior Transition Unit, which, during the height of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, was the Army’s largest unit specifically created for the Army’s wounded, ill and injured population.

“I had a huge perspective, having been a patient in one and then I was in charge of one,” Gannaway said. “You’re working with several different groups of people who are there for different reasons. Some need acute medical care. Some have aggravated injuries that happened on a mobilization tour; they’re having to work up a rotator cuff or a strained knee and they’re only in the unit for a couple of weeks. Some folks are with us until they’re medically retired from service. We’ve got everything from a broken finger to somebody who was full-time in a hospital bed, and all ranges in between.”

Leaving the military at the end of 2018, Gannaway spent about a month in between jobs before accepting his current position at the Gatton School in January. His family enjoys not having to make the frequent moves that come with military life. And Gannaway is tackling the fresh challenges of this job, while also pursuing his license to become a CPA.

“I liked the fact it enabled me to use some of my background as a resource manager, but also the fact that I would be included on the leadership team of the college and be able to help guide or have influence on decisions,” Gannaway said of his current position. “I guess the phrase is, one door closes and a window opens. My time at Walter Reed gave me connections that I would’ve never had before and opportunities I would’ve never had before.”


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