Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Sherman Gillums Jr. '09


After his car rolled for the third time, Sherman Gillums Jr. ’09 (MSGL) came to a rest upside down and, mercifully, alive. A semi-trailer truck, upon being cut off by a separate vehicle, ran Gillums off Interstate 5 while trying to avoid a crash.

“I was seat-belted in, I had airbags,” he says of the 2001 accident. “A lot of that contributes to why it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”

But the true extent of his injuries wasn’t immediately apparent. It was only after Gillums was transported to the hospital by helicopter that doctors confirmed the unthinkable: his neck was broken. Further, the two fractured vertebrae were pressing against his spinal cord and cutting off blood flow, a dangerous paralysis risk.

Only when the swelling subsided would doctors know whether Gillums, who was an active duty member of the Marine Corps at the time of the crash, would regain his full health.

“In my case, I was somewhere in the middle,” Gillums, who is confined to a wheelchair, says 15 years later. “My hands have deficits, but I can still move them. My legs don’t move in a useful motor sense, but I can still feel them and I can still wiggle my toes and flex certain muscles. It’s like a patchwork of things that were spared and things that are completely gone.”

Gillums aims to empower those in need. He was named executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Paralyzed Veterans of America in January 2016. The organization, founded in 1946, promotes spinal cord research and education, helps injured service members secure Veterans Affairs medical benefits, and speaks out on Capitol Hill to ensure that nondiscrimination laws are implemented and enforced.

The married father of six frequently speaks to news organizations and has written editorials advocating on behalf of paralyzed veterans. Throughout the United States, there are 44,000 paralyzed military veterans, including 400 new cases ever year, according to the group. Injuries were suffered during active duty, or after personnel left the service.

It’s not surprising that paralysis poses challenging terrain for those grappling with a new reality.

“Most of the time, the veteran has no idea what assistance is available,” Gillums says. “They need to have their disability claim filed, they need someone to look in on their health care. There’s peer mentoring. You see people in wheelchairs who are relatively advanced in their condition, and that gives hope to paralyzed veterans at a moment when it feels like they have nothing.”

Gillums says he enrolled in USD’s master’s program in global leadership to build on leadership roles he held in the Marine Corps. Particularly influential was an ethics class he took from MSGL professor Bob Schoultz, a former Navy SEAL who also directed the program.

“He challenged me to appreciate the nuance of ethics,” Gillums says. “In business, it’s really about your value for the community you’re serving. It helped me see my job as having a bigger purpose.”

Gillums has worked for Paralyzed Veterans of America in various capacities since 2004, following a 12-year Marine Corps career in which he earned the Marine Drill Instructor Ribbon and the Global War on Terror Service Medal. The organization runs 34 chapters around the country.

“It doesn’t take a person who doesn’t know Sherman very long to be captivated — some even intimidated — by his presence and energy,” says Lana McKenzie, associate executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “Maybe it comes from his background as a Marine drill instructor. He thinks through complex problems to come up with unique solutions and approaches. Add to that a blend of zeal and stubbornness, and you have someone who makes a great champion for whatever cause he believes in.”

Adds Gillums: “I’m proud of being a voice for the voiceless. But I’m always proudest when I’m representing the organization, not as Sherman Gillus, but as a paralyzed veteran.” — Andrew Faught

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