MT. JULIET, Tenn. (WKRN) – A veteran in Middle Tennessee will never forget receiving unexpected good news from a celebrity.
Army veteran Melvin Gatewood, of Mt. Juliet, is the inaugural Rusty Baggett Peer Leader of the Year award recipient with the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). He was given the news by award-winning actor Mark Wahlberg via video.
The Wounded Warrior Project is an organization which offers programs, services and events for wounded veterans of the military.
WWP chose five regional winners and notified them on Zoom conference calls. The national award is named after an Army veteran and former Wounded Warrior Project staff member. Rusty Baggett was a WWP Peer Support Group leader prior to being hired to work first-hand with warriors. Baggett died last year.
Gatewood told News 2’s Alex Corradetti he comes from a long line of veterans.
“My brother and I wanted to both serve the country. So we both joined the Mississippi National Guard. I always liked the military. I was just passionate about serving my country, especially after 9/11. It just felt like the right thing to do,” said Gatewood.
Gatewood spent the majority of his time served in the National Guard capacity but also served in Iraq.
“When I got ready to go active duty, I had to wait six months. Throughout that six months of waiting, my National Guard unit was called and activated. So, I ended up going active duty but ended up going on the National Guard side and was deployed to Iraq in 2004-05,” said Gatewood.
Gatewood was wounded in combat while on a mission April 19, 2005. The Humvee he was driving flipped and caught fire. Corporal Gatewood received burns to his hands and back. Another soldier died in the attack. Despite his injuries, Gatewood went back and rescued the other wounded soldiers from the Humvee. Gatewood received a Purple Heart for his actions.
Now, Gatewood is celebrating another accomplishment. He’s both the East Region and National Rusty Baggett Peer Leader of the Year award winner. He was surprised to get a special congratulations from actor Mark Wahlberg.
“Based on your leadership, dedication, and impact with your community and to the fellow Wounded Warrior Project alumni you have been selected as the inaugural Rusty Baggett Peer Award recipient, Congratulations!,” said Wahlberg.
Gatewood said that special message is something he will never forget.
“Next thing I know, I saw the name Mark Wahlberg come on, and I was like ‘oh wow!’ He came on and thanked me for my service. My wife, she watches his show a lot, so I asked can I go and get her. She came upstairs and she said ‘oh, I love your mom.’ And he talked about his mom. And it was good. It was before she passed. He was a very down-to-earth gentleman, and I really just enjoyed it.” He continued, “I have seen a lot of things that him and his brothers have done for the veteran population. So, just to see that I had the opportunity to speak with him, I was just very humbled by it and really appreciate it.”
Gatewood currently volunteers with the Wounded Warrior Project. He said the symbol of the organization is a soldier carrying another – something he has the blessing of doing now for other veterans in Middle Tennessee.
“I’ve got numerous accolades throughout the years, and I currently work at the Department of Veteran Affairs as a peer support specialist. So, to do this job every day and to do it on a volunteer basis, that’s why I said that my life is for service. I love giving back and there’s nothing like it.”
Gatewood and his wife will accept the award in-person at a ceremony in New York in September.
The other regional winners of the award are:
- Mid-Atlantic region: Aaron Brooks
- North Central region: Sergio Alfaro
- South Central region: Kevin Bowden
- West region: Chris Carver
To learn more about the Wounded Warrior Project, click here.