You never know what you’re capable of until you break the boundaries you’ve defined for yourself. Life is a sequence of choices that lead us down a path, and we don’t always end up where we thought we were headed. I’ve had an amazing life surrounded by family and friends, and I’m grateful every day I get out of bed and put my feet on the floor. We all have good days where life comes easy, but it’s those days where the light seems dimmest and hope feels depleted that we must dig down deep, refuse to quit, and find out what drives us.
My life started in Tampa, Florida where I was born and raised. I was always the hyper kid driving my parents, sister, and neighbors mad. From swimming with crocodiles in the creek to riding my bike off the roof of our house, it’s a wonder I made it to adulthood and I thank my mother and God every day that I’m still around to tell my story. Growing up I was always a free spirit, going with the flow and not giving much thought to what I wanted to be when I grew up.
After high school I enrolled in our local community college and got a job as a butcher. After spinning my wheels for a few years, I eventually joined the United States Air Force. Looking back, that may have been the single greatest choice I ever made – besides deciding to start a family. After enduring a grueling training pipeline for over a year and a half, I earned my beret and became a Pararescue Jumper, or PJ.
As a member of Air Force Special Operations, PJs rescue and recover downed aircrews in hostile or otherwise unsearchable areas and bring them home. PJ’s are the only United States Department of Defense elite combat force specifically organized, trained, equipped, and postured to conduct full spectrum personnel recovery to include both conventional and unconventional combat rescue operations. We are the most highly trained and versatile personnel recovery specialists in the world, and we are the nation’s first choice to execute the most perilous, demanding, and extreme rescue missions anytime, anywhere across the globe. As a PJ it was my duty to save lives and to aid the injured. I was prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing those duties before personal desires and comforts. “These things we do, so that others may live”.
After my first assignment at Royal Air Force Base Woodbridge, I volunteered to join a brand-new organization called Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. After attending JSOC’s selection course where I completed physical fitness tests and psychological evaluations, I was selected for the first PJ unit in JSOC known as Detachment 4. The unit is now known as the 24th Special Tactics Squadron and is involved in many global operations. Most of their missions are shrouded in secrecy, but not all. Several missions you may have heard of include the rescue of Jessica Lynch, Black Hawk Down (That was the name of the movie - not the name of the operation), and airfield seizures in Grenada and Panama.
On February 4th, 1987, I was about to make my 90th free-fall parachute jump. Attached to an elite Navy SEAL team out of Damn Neck, Virginia, we were conducting training in preparation for an upcoming mission aboard a Marine CH-46 helicopter flying over the Virginia countryside. We reached 13,000 feet, and on command, I stepped out into the crisp, winter air. At 3500 feet from the ground I pulled my rip cord, and my world went dark. A fellow jumper, still overhead and falling at 120 mph, was unable to avoid me. The other jumper fell through my parachute, destroying the canopy, and collided directly with the top of my head. The impact shattered my skull and knocked me unconscious, and I spiraled violently out of control for over 3,000 feet hitting the ground at over 100 mph.
Why I survived the initial fall and subsequent recovery, I cannot say. However, looking back, there were several contributing factors that played a key role in my survival and eventual recovery. The choices I made leading up to the accident played a vital role in my initial survival, and with the help of family, friends, and amazing doctors, I would eventually go on to make a nearly full recovery.
Following the accident, I accepted a position to lead PJs in training at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico. From there I was deployed to Iraq ahead of Desert Storm where I rode in the lead MH-53 that flew into Iraq as part of Operation Eager Anvil, the initial incursion of US forces into Iraq which later became known as “Kickoff”. After my deployment, I was selected to be the first Air Force instructor at the Army Special Forces SCUBA School in Key West Florida. And after three years in paradise, I was re-assigned to Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, United Kingdom.
While assigned to not-so-sunny England, I was selected to be the Team Lead for a group of PJs based out of Italy supporting conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia. Our mission was to rotate rescue packages, a small team of PJs, aircrew, and support personnel that are on-call and in the air twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Should an aircraft go down, we were the first responders called to rescue the downed pilot. One of those pilots rescued would go on to become one of the most influential members in the United States Air Force!
After my next assignment to Hurlburt Field, Florida, I would eventually be medically retired and forced to separate. Since then I’ve worked Diplomatic Security Detail for the State Department at the US Embassy in Iraq, security for goldmines in Indonesia, and I now work for the Department of Homeland Security. I’ve done a lot of exciting things since departing the Air Force, but I still miss it and I would reenlist today if I could. - SG