A Veteran Finds Strength and Lasting Friendships on the River
Sometimes we get notes from guests that are too moving not too share. In this case, with their permission, we’re sharing the powerful story of two female veterans, who after almost 15 years apart, reunited last year on a Gates of Lodore rafting trip for veterans and military service members. This is a story about friendship, sacrifice, and some of the fiercest ladies on this planet finding strength and support on a life-changing adventure.
I am writing you this email in hopes that it will help other veterans like me, and my new found friends.
Last year, about this time, I was working with Guy Sheble from Silver Paws Ranch in San Andreas, California, right down the road from the OARS office in Angles Camp. Guy tells me about a rafting trip, fully paid for, available for female veterans. All I have to do is sign up.
Initially, I thought, I am not “qualified” to take this trip. I am not “disabled” in the way that many are. I felt that there were so many other people that deserve it more than I do.
I have two very close friends. One, a victim of “military sexual trauma” or MST as they call it now, and another, left with severe injuries from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. I sent the information to both of them, and said, “If you sign up, I will sign up.”
Women are weird and funny; they do not typically “like” other women. I was apprehensive to sign up for this adventure, not knowing the other women I would spend five days with on a river.
My first friend was unable to commit to the time of the trip, but the other could.
Jamie and I were stationed together in England. We deployed together to Saudi Arabia just before September 11, 2001. We became very close during the almost four months we spent in the desert. We did not like other females. We were not even sure if we liked each other at first. That is just how female military members operate. But we decided we were each worthy of each other’s friendship.
Following our return home to England, I got orders to move to Iceland, and she moved on to Colorado. She trained to be a dog handler. She excelled at everything she did. We kept in touch via email. She deployed with her dog Rex and returned home. I moved to Texas. She deployed again with her dog Rex.
I was in a training when the instructors had news to report. A female Air Force K9 unit out of Colorado was working with an Army unit when their Humvee was hit by a buried IED. I held my breath. “Please don’t be Jamie!” was all I could think. We took a break and I asked the instructor if they had a name. I said, “Please not Jamie.” They said it was. She was fighting for her life. They did not think she would make it. I cried. I was scared. I was worried. My heart broke for her family. For her. For Rex.
Jamie recovered, but not without a struggle. We remained close, and talked as often as military members far away from each other could. She sometimes would not remember we talked before due to her traumatic brain injury and memory issues. She had horrible survivor’s guilt. She was the only one in the vehicle that lived that day. Her and Rex. (That is a whole other story.)
Jamie moved to a few different states before settling in Ohio, and me in California. I guess you could get farther away… but that is pretty far.
Then, we went on this amazing rafting trip.
I knew I was going to cry, a lot, when I saw her at the airport in Salt Lake City. It has been almost 15 years since we had last seen each other. And her plane was late. So I made the big bus full of other ladies wait. Jamie made it to the bus, and there was no time to cry, because we were on our way to an adventure of a lifetime.
When navigating some of the more difficult parts of the river, and after involuntarily swimming on a Class III rapid, I was worried. Anxious. Nervous. Scared. Excited. I wondered what our chances were of making it through the next set of rapids without swimming. Our guide gave us a 50 percent chance of getting through the next series of rapids without swimming. I was hoping for more like 70 percent. Jamie, my ducky paddling partner, while staring at the river ahead simply said to me, “20 percent.”
I looked at her quizzically and said, “Huh?”
She said, “20 percent…that is what they told my mom when they notified her of the explosion. Doctors gave me a 20 percent chance of survival.”
Now, here she was in front of me, with a helmet on and holding a paddle, ready to navigate the next Class III rapids.
Since that trip, when faced with a challenge, I think of Jamie often. I think of the 20 percent chance. Nothing is as difficult as what she has done. Or, what any of the ladies who were on that Gates of Lodore trip have done.
On this trip the unthinkable happened. I met all of these other women who had been through so much, and sacrificed so much. And I felt so incredibly lucky to be in their presence. These women are true heroes. Some nearly gave the ultimate sacrifice. All volunteered to do just that. We have all been affected by our sacrifices. All in different ways. No one judged the others, and we all worked together as a team. Those who could not do something physically were assisted by those who could. Those who were having mental reservations were encouraged by the rest. I have never seen a more fierce group in all my life.
I have never met someone for just a short period of time and then kept in touch with them like I have with these ladies. If we could all afford to meet on our own, on a regular basis, we would. But from Ohio, to Texas, to Georgia, to Colorado, to California, to Florida, it’s a bit tough.
If we could share our stories, again, with anyone who would listen, or we could help another veteran—a female warrior who feels that other female warriors will not support them—then we have accomplished an amazing thing.
This is just a small part of the story of me and Jamie.
Photos courtesy of Jackie Jones: From the top – Jackie and Jamie hiking along Utah’s Green River; Jackie and Jamie in Saudi Arabia together circa 2001; Jamie after her accident in 2005; Jackie and Jamie reunited and paddling a ducky together on a Gates of Lodore rafting trip