Keynote Speaker Noah Galloway: Living With No Excuses
Keynote speaker, retired Army veteran Sgt. Noah Galloway, captivated the capacity audience Saturday morning with his stories of how he came to serve in the military, his experiences serving in Iraq, becoming severely injured, recovering, and then coming into opportunities that now allow him to motivate and sustain fellow veterans, healthcare providers and civilians.
Galloway started his address by thanking the military – those who are now serving and have served. He went on to say that he never wanted to be in military. His Mom kept pushing him. He said that he respected the military, he just didn’t want to be in it.
That changed when he began his college education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the fall of 2001. On the fateful morning of September 11, he slept in. His friend Justin called and said, turn the TV on. A “pilot error” had caused a plane to hit one of the World Trade Center towers.
“I watched with the rest of the world as we worried about those in the building. Watched with the rest of the world as the second plane hit,” he said. He felt confused. Then the “pilot error,” became “the country is under attack.” He watched for as long as he could, then went for a run. He had no goal, no destination, he just ran. He discovered what he truly loved, “My country.” Galloway was 20 years old, physically fit, “there was no place to go other than the military.”
So Galloway enlisted, and realized, “This is it. This is what I want to do. I stumbled into the military, I wore that uniform, the excitement that came with it. After a year in Iraq, I came home. I reenlisted, training for next deployment.”
In between the two deployments, his son Colston was born prematurely. He had many surgeries. Seventy-five percent of his small intestines were removed. Colston had a central line placed, and they were told he would have a feeding bag until he was six. Galloway spoke with the chain of command, he was not going back to Iraq, his priority was his son. The big goal was to get the central line out. Soon the stomach tube came out, and so did the central line. The surgeon was excited, everything was going well. Galloway decided it was time to go to back to work.
He sat with his colonel, who asked about Galloway’s son. “My son is okay, I need to go back to Iraq,” he answered. He was allowed to go back to Iraq in 2005. “I knew I had a job to do. Didn’t want my men to go and me not be a part of it.”
A Fateful Night
They were stationed in southwest Baghdad. Every unit that had been there before had taken a beating. Galloway’s unit was no different. They lost 5 guys right off the bat.
On December 19, 2005, it was almost his turn. Their unit had two missions. Galloway explained that a platoon is comprised of 30 men. Half went in one direction, half in the other. His half of the platoon finished first. The platoon was living in an old potato factory, where they went when they finished. He explained that when you’re in a combat platoon and an opportunity presents itself to get some rest, you take advantage of it. He went and laid down. “Just as I dozed off, my platoon leader woke me up.” The others were going to go pick up the rest of the platoon.
“No sir, I’m going,” Galloway replied. “There could be an awesome firefight. I’m going, and will drive the lead vehicle.”
At night, they drove their Humvees with the lights off, and put their night vision goggles on. Usually the enemy would try to set off roadside bombs. They would set up a wire across the road, and hide in bushes. After a bomb would be detonated, “We’d shoot up the bushes.” Eventually the enemy realized this was not going to work, and began to detonate the bombs remotely. Galloway spoke of an antenna that had been created that would scramble the signal so the enemy couldn’t time their explosions right. Explosions would happen in front of them, and behind them, no doubt frustrating the enemy, as it was supposed to do.
“As we were driving, you can see well but you can’t see everything,” said Galloway. On the night of December 19, 2005, the enemy stretched a trip wire across the road. They detonated the roadside bomb, which threw Galloway’s 9,000-pound Humvee into nearby water. His injuries included a hole in his jaw. His arm had been taken right off, his right hand had injuries, and both legs were badly injured. He was chest-high in the water. Medics worked on him, and he began the long trek from camp to Baghdad to Germany, and ultimately to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Six days later, on Christmas Day, he woke up, unaware of where he was.
His parents walked into his room and he knew he was safe. His parents wouldn’t be allowed anywhere that wasn’t safe. “My mother is a small tiny woman, freckles, white hair, glasses. Adorable. She was a military brat,” Galloway said. “My dad’s a little soft sometimes. She was the one that stood at my bedside and decided she needed to treat it like ripping off a bandage. I’d been hit, jaw shattered, leg amputated, arm ripped off. She also told me my wife, the mother of my son, this had proved too much for her, and she would not be at hospital. Oh, and my dog had fallen ill, and they had put him down.”
Galloway teased, “A wife you can replace, but a dog?”
“My wife left me, but we are good now. We were young, she saw a window and she jumped. We have shared custody. Her husband, I wouldn’t call him a friend. I’m better looking. But we’re good now. But that happened. It was good for me to hear, almost comedic. Tough to be in that hospital.”
Galloway went on to explain that he had a good example to follow. “My father, when he was 18, a machine malfunctioned, squished his right hand. They had to amputate it. He taught me to roof houses, put in plumbing, with one hand. The man was the perfect motivation for me to keep going, of not quitting. The doctors were saying it too, but when you hear it from someone who’s been there, ‘You did it, I’ll be fine.’”
While he was in the hospital, an old girlfriend came up to visit. “We rushed into a marriage within a year, and soon there were two children. My depression, the denial, was horrible. I would drink all night, stay out all night, sleep all day. She was stuck dealing with the children while I was going through what I was going through.”
The "A ha!" Moment
Galloway went on to say that people always ask what was his “A ha!” moment? What got him out of his depression and to the successful place he is at now? He answered that the one constant was his three kids. “I walked out to the living room, three kids sitting on the couch. I’m showing my two boys that that’s what a man is. To my little girl, that’s what she’s going to look for in a man. It was not what I wanted. I had to make a change.”
Even when he would mess up, he thought of his three children, and it motivated him to get up. He began exercising, eating right, building a name for himself in fitness. He began running races, climbing mountains. “Everything a person missing an arm and leg isn’t supposed to do.”
He went to Vermont to put himself through a race so grueling it’s called the “Death Race.” Galloway said, “They don’t let you rest. A hundred showed up, only one with an injury. Some portion of the competition was timed, I knew I wouldn’t make it. I was there to test myself, that’s it. Soon there were only 20 of us left, and they let us know we had finished the Death Race. I outlasted 80 percent of the group. It made me wonder, what else am I capable of, what else am I holding myself back from?”
He somehow caught the eye of Men’s Health magazine and was the first amputee to grace the cover. It brought so much attention, he received a call from Ellen DeGeneres’ people. People told him, “You go on Ellen, you’re set.” The minute that show aired, his phone started ringing. “Survivor calls me. I love Survivor, but there would be no contact back home. Sorry, three children here are more important. Another show called, couldn’t do it. My kids are more important,” Galloway explained.
A Fateful Phone Call
Then Dancing with the Stars called. “’Any dance experience?’ No. ‘What do you do when you go out to a club?’ Sit at the bar and run my mouth,” Galloway said. The producer called him. “If you do our show, you’ll be in a house in L.A. for the duration of show.’ My three kids are more important. ‘That’s okay, you can rehearse in Ala., then fly to L.A. for the show.’ All I could say was, ‘Crap.’”
Galloway figured he would be on 1-2, possibly 3 weeks, “so people feel sorry for me. Week 4, why am I still here?” Singer Pattie LaBelle was also on the show. “Super sweet, awesome, cool woman. She wanted to go home. Made it look like she wasn’t good, she went home.”
Week 5 of Dancing with the Stars was dedicated to the contestants’ most memorable year. Galloway’s dance partner, Sharna Burgess, wanted to focus on Galloway’s military career and injury. They performed to Toby Keith’s “American Soldier.” The team practiced and rehearsed it. As they performed the dance during the competition, “I do a lift that was never done before,” Galloway says proudly. “Sharna, held her up. The entire studio audience got to their feet. Felt amazing. I didn’t want to put her down. I was in awe of what is happening. This is how you go out!”
Before every dance on Dancing with the Stars, there is a video package that plays. Galloway’s included an interview he had done, talking about his struggles and depression, and not opening up to anybody soon enough. “I did that to myself, to not get any help,” Galloway said.
After the show, the contestants go through interviews, with “the same question over and over again.” There are people who meet with them to get a photo taken. “Wardrobe wants their clothes back, and they’re literally pulling them off you.” Then, after a long flight back to Birmingham, Galloway and Burgess rehearsed into night. He didn’t have time to check voicemail or text messages until the following morning.
'Bigger Than Us'
One of his voicemail messages was from a veteran he had met previously named John. John told him that he was proud of him and had gotten a call from a buddy serving in Afghanistan. That soldier expressed that he was happy to see Galloway put himself out there. He told John he was going through some struggles and needed help. John then told Noah, “You are positively affecting the lives of veterans.”
Galloway played the message for Sharna, and told her this was “bigger than us. We kept going - 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 weeks. Came in third. I tell people, Rumer Willis, daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, put everything she had out there. She earned first place. Riker Lynch came in second. I couldn’t even dance, came in third place. It changed my life being on there. The people who voted for me don’t realize how much I appreciate it. It changed my life, my children’s lives. After Dancing with the Stars, I was on American Grit. My team dominated the show. Don’t want to ruin it," he said slyly. "All of these great opportunities. I try not to get wrapped up in things. Some people like attention. You may be surprised to realize I’m one of those people.”
Battling the Stigma
Then he took questions from the audience. Galloway impressed upon the anesthesia providers that the stigma of depression is what needs to be overcome. It needs to become the usual – going for annual mental health examinations just as we do for physical examinations. “Think about what you do and if you couldn’t do it,” he urged. “What’s Plan B? I’d be shocked if anybody has a Plan B.”
One audience member, retired Navy Captain Munoz talked about being stationed at Landstuhl in Germany and not being able to follow up on patients he helped there. He asked about the stages of Galloway’s care when he was returning to the U.S. “I remember being put into an ambulance, taken to the plane leaving Germany. Really cold. Air Force nurses, two females, one male. It was me and an older veteran who was dying, talking out of his head. He had been living in Germany, and was going back to his family. In the plane, I feel the warmth from these nurses. I would have married any of them. Last thing they said, you’re going to go to sleep. I will never forget them because of the way they made me feel, just like the Maya Angelou saying. There are little moments that you never forget, and are really appreciative for. Warmth, care, tops everything. I guarantee there are a lot of men and women who are thankful of where they are because of your care,” Galloway said.
After several more questions, Galloway ended his talk by bringing it all home to his audience. “It’s an honor to be here. I want you to know how important your role is. I mean that sincerely, from the bottom of my heart. I thank you, my family thanks you for taking care of the rest of us. Talking about mental health--be careful of your mental health. You give a lot. You don’t always take care of yourself. I need you to do that. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to take care of us. I thank you.”