When Will Gregory talks about his 9-month tour in Afghanistan as an embedded cultural advisor, the 26-year-old New Canaan native describes walking through desert sand, leery of land mines. He relays the challenge of staying hydrated while carrying 50 lbs. of body armor, equipment and water in temperatures often in excess of 135 degrees. He explains the mindset necessary for dealing with danger, using the military term “situational awareness,” to express blocking out fear in the moment, and dealing with it afterward. “Your nerves just go away. I expected to have my heart pounding, but you don’t. You’re trained to do what you need to do and reflect later.”
Extremely articulate, Gregory generously shares what he can, mindful not to let slip a single word in the category of “classified information.” He patiently explains why he volunteered for the military and his belief in service, patriotism and his desire to have a positive impact. As he tells his stories, he weaves in the theme of camaraderie, the sense of honor, the fortune of having “the best marines supporting us in Afghanistan.”
He is self-deprecating to a fault and, despite having just returned from Afghanistan in February, he is matter-of-fact about transitioning from a war zone to a hometown that appears right out of a Normal Rockwell painting.
When you deploy, your whole family deploys.
Answering question after question about Afghanistan, Gregory expresses no regret. In fact he admits the lure to return, though he also has a very adult awareness for others’ concern for him. When the destination is Helmand Province, the worry inflicted on family members, especially one’s mother, weighs heavily. He says the expression, ‘When you deploy, your whole family deploys,’ rings true for him.
Sitting in a New Canaan coffee shop adorned with college pennants, Gregory appears to be the all-American Ivy-league type, the product of standout school system. Dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, he is punctual, polite, and handsome, and it is tempting to stereotype him. With an advanced degree from Oxford University, where he trained to be what in Britain is referred to as a 'practitioner of anthropology,' it is obvious why the 26-year-old was selected for his highly specialized assignment in Helmand.
Blessing or Disability?
What’s less obvious is Gregory’s disability, dyslexia, which isolated him in his early years, and he admits to having been called "stupid," "lazy," and even a "god-damned idiot." He explained that at six-, seven- or eight-years-old the humiliation of not being able to read really stung. Asked how he dealt with his perceived failure, he said he stayed very quiet as opposed to acting out.
Gregory’s dyslexia was addressed when his parents sent him to Linden Hill School in Massachusetts, a private middle school where teachers employ the Orton-Gillingham instructional approach involving a combination of visual (learning to associate concepts with images), auditory, and kinesthetic (learning by doing). “This had a huge impact,” said Gregory. Essentially they took us back to third grade and started over.”
Still, Gregory said he struggled. After Linden Hill he went on to attend high school at The Gunnery in Washington, CT, but remained in the bottom third academically. It wasn’t until participating in a program called “Ocean Classroom,” and living aboard a tall ship where classes merged theory and application that he rose from the bottom third to being the top student. From there he went to Gettysburg College in PA and finally Oxford in England.
Gregory has even lectured at both Harvard and Yale about domestic governance and policy, but explains that he always memorizes his speeches. He recalls a time in church he was handed two paragraphs to read out loud. “It was excruciating,” he said.
Gregory has come a long way from those early days of failure. So far in fact that he now views his dyslexia as something of a blessing. “It’s made me a good problem solver… It’s given me an advantage because I take with me the experience of struggle.”
The Mentis Foundation
Gregory views dyslexics as a vast untapped pool of talent, which he said is estimated to be 12-15% of the population. But, said Gregory, “Hundreds of thousands of kids don’t have access to the resources I was given.” This thought is what motivated Gregory to embark on his newest endeavor, the creation of The Mentis Foundation.
Using his military hazard pay for seed money and benefiting from a collaboration with his family, who became experts on the topic along the way, Gregory has set up a 501(c)3 to endow scholarships and is able to accept tax deductible contributions. His sister Becky Gregory designed the website.
Initially partnering with four schools, Mentis recently awarded its first set of eight scholarships to two students from each of the schools: Greenwich’s , Linden Hill Middle School in Northfield, MA; The Gow School in South Wales, NY; and Landmark College in Putney, VT.
“You’re not stupid because you have difficulty reading,” said Gregory. “I’d love it for kids to see first-hand that they’re competent, bright and have areas where they excel,” he added. “It’s a matter of them not giving up based on the frustrations.” Indeed, Gregory is a role model for perseverance. Gregory can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mentis Foundation website is: http://www.mentisfoundation.org/