'Spanky' goes to Washington
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    REGION: 'Spanky' goes to Washington

    By MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

    CAMP PENDLETON ---- Master Sgt. William "Spanky" Gibson, one of only a handful of Marines to lose a limb in Iraq and later return to the war zone, is headed for Congress.

    Gibson isn't Capitol-bound as a newly elected lawmaker, but as one of a trio of noncommissioned officers chosen for a new congressional fellowship program.

    He will spend the next 12 months working as a legislative affairs assistant for a member of the House or Senate Armed Services Committee.

    "I hope I can give some advice on veterans-assistance and wounded-warrior matters,” Gibson said last week. "Those are areas where I have direct knowledge."

    Gibson, 37, gained that knowledge after losing his left leg to a sniper’s bullet while on patrol in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in May 2006.

    He spent two months in Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and weeks at a hospital in Texas learning to use his prosthetic leg. From there, the Oklahoma native set out to prove he was physically capable of returning to duty.

    Gibson fought to stay on active duty, he said, because the Marine Corps is his career and he still felt devoted to duty.

    In June 2007, he met with Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who was then head of Camp Pendleton’s I Marine Expeditionary Force and commander of Marines throughout the Middle East.

    Gibson explained to the general his desire to return to active duty.

    From there, a nudge from Mattis to Marine leadership resulted in Gibson being returned to active duty. His assignment the last nine months was with the I Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group at Camp Fallujah in the Anbar province, where he helped coordinate artillery and aerial bombardment.

    In that role inside the headquarters' operations center, Gibson had little chance to "get outside the wire," the military's reference to what lies beyond its bases in Iraq. But he did manage to ride along on a couple of convoys.

    "The two times I got outside the wire were not really sanctioned," Gibson said. "I was kind of being held onto by colonels who kept telling me I had done enough and it was more important I be around to share my experiences."

    Gibson said he wanted another chance to re-experience the sights, smells and sounds of the area where his life underwent a major transformation, comparing the desire to Vietnam veterans returning to that country decades after their own war experience.

    He resisted the temptation to ask his superiors to allow him to revisit the precise location where he was wounded.

    "I didn't want to make it all about me and put anyone else at risk," he said.

    The relative calmness now seen throughout the Anbar province is a reversal of the conditions when he was wounded, Gibson said. That was before the Sunni population turned from the insurgency and began cooperating with U.S. forces.

    "In early 2006, it was still a slugfest every day," he said. "Now, guys will say after seven months of conducting patrols outside the wire that they never had to fire their weapon."

    Gibson said he believes almost all Iraqis are weary of violence and want the insurgency entirely eliminated.

    And like many inside the Marine Corps, Gibson said he thinks the decline in violence and growing ability of Iraqi army and security forces have paved the way for possibly reducing by several thousand the 25,000-strong U.S. troop force that has been assigned to Anbar the last half-decade.

    As he prepares for his new job, Gibson said he holds no political aspirations of his own. Instead, he sees the fellowship created by the Defense Department as a chance to offer an enlisted man's view to those who shape and enact U.S. military policy.

    "To me, great leaders, military or political and regardless of party, have to rely on the information given to them," he said. "I hope I'm able to be one of those people who can give the best advice resulting in the best possible decisions."

    Mattis said Gibson is well-suited for his next assignment, the first time the Marine Corps has opened up the congressional fellowship to noncommissioned officers, or NCOs.

    "NCOs are the ones most in contact with the energetic, selfless young men who carry the brunt of the fighting load," Mattis said in an e-mail.

    Mattis, who is now a four-star general and head of the Joint Forces Command, a planning, training and NATO affiliate based in Virginia, said troops such as Gibson can give lawmakers real-world advice.

    "They're often the most articulate about the impact of personnel policies," he said.

    Among his tasks before leaving for Oklahoma on Monday and then on to Washington, Gibson attended the promotion ceremony for one of the people who helped him at Bethesda, the newly promoted Gunnery Sgt. John Szczepanowski.

    He was part of a patient care team at Gibson's bedside throughout his convalescence. The two later joined up again before Gibson redeployed to promote the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit group that raises money for injured Marines and their families.

    "He was at my side on an almost daily basis," Gibson said. "He helped prepare me for what was ahead in terms of surgery and psychological impacts."

    Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (951) 676-4315, Ext. 3529, or mlwalker@californian.com.


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