GOVERNMENT CAMP, Ore. -- Rob Disney picks at the strings on his guitar, creating a peaceful melody on the front porch of a climbing cabin called Cloud Cap, high up the north side of Mt. Hood. He wears jeans and a T-shirt and flip flops but it’s not his normal uniform.
Disney is a member of the U.S. Air Force, a special operations airman known as a “PJ” or pararescue specialist. He and six other PJ’s including Jimmy Settle from Alaska, who sits by listening to the music, are here to recover from the trauma of war. They are hoping to bond with each other and gain healing from nature and one another.
“You could say that,” Disney says smiling and nodding at the nearby peak of Mt. Hood.
Disney is 35 years old, a Senior Master Sergeant, stationed in Langley, Virginia. He said his world began to come apart in Afghanistan nine years ago during a fire fight.
“I was picking up my weapon, just like this, looking straight down the barrel. The bullet came straight in, punched into my face, under my ear, passed through my neck and came out of my neck just a quarter inch to the right of my spine,” he said. He's since struggled with a long list of injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It never goes away. It’s always right there. It’s a matter of what you do with it and how you move forward from there that determines whether you'll be a victim or a survivor. I'm a survivor," he said.
Staff Sergeant Jimmy Settle is a survivor too. “My injury has impacted every facet of my life,” he said. Settle is from Alaska and is getting treatment for PTSD and his injuries in the Seattle area. In 2010 he was shot as his chopper raced to help injured soldiers in Afghanistan. He said the bullet smashed through the floor and into his head.
“The first thing I noticed was a really loud sound,” he said. “It sounded like there was a bag of really wet diapers hitting a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour. Just a crazy splat sound," said Settle. Doctor's patched him up. “I know I’m a beautiful man!” he said laughing.
But inside, his wife discovered, the old Jimmy was gone. “It was a real interesting wake-up call when I heard her say - 'you’re a completely different man than the guy I married,'” he said. “'You’ve changed.' Our relationship wasn’t strong enough to recover but it was nice to have her in my corner to at least say, 'hey man you are messed up. You need to get help,'” said Settle.
But getting help can lead to a lonely path. “It’s really easy sometimes to get so down into the weeds of therapy to kinda forget that you have a whole brotherhood backing you up,” Settle said.
That's one reason the wounded PJ’s are at this mountain camp. "There are things I can talk about with them that I can’t talk about with my own wife, my parents or my best friends,” said Disney.
Friendship and nature create a powerful force. “I love coming out into the mountains. It’s always spiritual, therapeutic,” said Settle.
The soldiers were invited here by the 304th Rescue Squadron, PJ's themselves. “Its been an honor,” said Major Chris Bernard from the 304th. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of this before. And it’s been great to be able to host this event and get them in on some of the training. They feel part of the rescue family again," Bernard said.
The Crag Rats climbing organization also helped by allowing the soldiers to use its Cloud Cap climbing cabin. The week long retreat was paid for by a foundation called “That Others May Live.” It helps families and members of the Air Force rescue community.
One week will not undo the damage inside these special soldiers. But they'll return home with memories of the mountain and the knowledge that they are not alone, not forgotten.
To support the That Others May Live foundation, click here.