Face of Defense: Fall Taught Major to Get Back Up
By Samuel King Jr.
96th Air Base Wing
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Aug. 11, 2010 Waking up alone and bleeding on sun-baked granite after falling 50 feet face-first from the top of a mountain is where Air Force Academy Cadet David Garay found himself June 2, 1997, only one day after his 19th birthday.
Garay, now a major, lived through the fall and recovered, but the incident changed the course of his life forever.
"I rarely think about it at all now," said Garay, executive officer for the Air Armament Center commander here. "But for the first five years, I thought about it all the time -- how it changed my plans, how it would maybe shortchange my career. Ultimately, though, it was my own fault."
It was a Sunday at the academy, closing out a slow "dead week," where seniors prepared for graduation and first-year cadets waited for summer training to begin.
Before leaving his dormitory, Garay told his roommate of his plans to hike to "Eagles Peak," a well-known mountain west of the academy. He even said if he wasn't back by 11 p.m., something happened.
Dressed in fatigues, he began the four-and-a-half-hour, 2,110-foot hike around 11 a.m. Despite being an "outdoor kind of guy" and a regular hiker, he described the climb as a "hard hike." This was his first time to climb the mountain.
At the top, Garay said, he enjoyed the view and finished the book "Into the Mouth of the Cat," the story of Medal of Honor recipient Air Force Capt. Lance. P. Sijan. But instead of returning the way he came, he decided to work his way down three-foot-wide ledges along the 400-foot cliff. Before long, he recognized he'd gone too far to go back up, and soon his conscience was talking to him.
"On one side, it was saying, 'Dummy, if you think you're going to fall, you should just wait for help,' and on the other side, it was saying 'You can make it down,'" the major said. He listened to the second voice and continued down until he ran out of ledge 50 feet from the bottom.
With worry enveloping him and panic close behind, Garay checked the time. That is the last thing he remembers.
"I'm not sure if I slipped or the rocks just gave way," he said. "The next thing I remember is waking up face-down on a rock in a dreamlike haze. I could hear ‘Retreat’ playing through the mountains coming from the academy."
Recalling that the last thing he could remember was looking at his watch, he surmised a 15-minute period had passed and something was drastically wrong.
"There wasn't a lot of pain," he recalled. "Everything was cloudy. My right eye was swollen shut. There was blood on my temple, and when I touched it, it stung. I thought, 'This is a bad dream, and when I wake up everything is going to be kosher.'"
He laid the left side of his face back down on the rock and went to sleep or passed out -- he doesn't remember which. After waking up a third time in pain and still in the same place, he realized he needed to do something.
"I had passed the denial phase," he said. "I was thinking, 'How am I going to get out of this? I'm hurt pretty bad. What do I need to do?'"
Miraculously, no bones were broken in his extremities; the damage was primarily to his head and face. His upper jaw and nose were broken, and he shattered the bones around his right eye. The blood from his temple had clotted up and dried in the sun while he was passed out. He recalled his jaw making clicking noises and that each time it did, he'd swallow blood.
Survival instinct took over, and his mind focused on one thing: getting down and getting help.
"It was going to be difficult, but it was my only option," he said. "I didn't feel like I could wait for help, because they may not get there in time."
As the sun set and shadows crept up the mountain, he began the perilous journey down through a dense forest of boulders, logs and thickets. The struggle was all the more difficult with limited vision.
"Anyone who's been hiking at night, or through survival training, knows it's hard to see with two eyes [in that environment]," he said. "With one, it's much worse. I had no depth perception."
He could move only about 50 to 100 feet at a time, due to blood loss and weakness. He would stop for breaks, fall asleep, then get up and begin again.
"There were times I'd step out and I couldn't feel the ground under me," Garay said. "I'd have to grasp onto trees and slide down the ridge to more level ground."
During one of the naps, he woke up and felt a snake slithering on his leg.
"I got up, and that's the fastest I moved during the whole ordeal,” he joked. “I covered 200 to 300 feet; the adrenaline was full up."
But the later it got, the colder it got. He had no idea of time, and the watch he'd looked at before the fall was gone. He had taken along water and orange juice, but when he would try to drink, he would vomit it back up due to the blood in his stomach.
Garay never gave up, even as hypothermia took hold in the early hours of the morning. Finally, the sun returned to the mountains, and the cadet heard voices calling his name from the valley below. He wanted to yell for them, but couldn't scream because of his broken jaw.
"I couldn't yell at the top of my lungs, because the jaw would click and cause a rush of pain," the major explained. "I fell back on all that leadership training of drill and marching flights. I had to make my voice come from my diaphragm rather than my mouth."
Finally, he belted out a few yells, and a security forces airman found him. The cadet spent close to 22 hours on the mountain, at least 17 of them after he fell.
"I could see he was concerned about me after he saw my appearance," the major said. "He removed his shirt and tied it around my head."
A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from Fort Carson, Colo., airlifted Garay to a hospital. He said he remembers the rotor wash and wind on his face as he was hoisted into the air.
When he arrived at the hospital, he was stabilized, and medical professionals began to clean and stitch him up. He recalled hearing the solution sizzle on his temple as it began to dissolve the blood.
Later, he was moved to Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, for reconstructive surgery to repair his skull and jaw.
The major said the doctor told him the bones around his eye were shattered and described them as looking like corn flakes. Doctors took turns during the 18-hour surgery to place the bone fragments back in place so they could conform to the rest of his skull. Titanium plates and screws were used to set some of the bones back and fix his jaw. The metal remains with him today.
"To remove them would be more surgery," he said. "If you look at my face, there's a noticeable difference, but it could have been much, much worse."
Garay spent more than a month in the hospital, in recovery and on a liquid diet. The sedentary time took its toll, he said, as he felt as if he was deteriorating physically as well as mentally.
"The surgery and recovery period was much harder than the actual accident," the major said. "People don't realize that. I went from the best shape of my life to the worst. I lost about 40 pounds easily."
After a year, he was back to peak physical condition, but the consequences of the accident were far-reaching.
"All I ever wanted to be was a pilot," the major said. "It's the reason I went to the academy, because I knew I'd have a better chance. That was taken away by my decisions and stupidity, really. It was the biggest mental struggle I've ever had. When you only have yourself to blame, it can be a huge burden on you emotionally.
"It was a tough battle the next couple of years," he continued. "The recovery was the hardest, most frustrating part, and sometimes the loneliest part of the whole experience. You're all alone, trying to come back from this and undo what you've done to yourself."
Over the next few years at the academy, he dealt with that internal struggle, wondering what his real purpose was and why the accident happened. The realization of his unfulfilled dream weighed heavily on him, and it took getting out into the operational Air Force to overcome it.
"I don't know how I was able to overcome it," the 32-year-old officer said. "I got busy with work in the Air Force and became successful. It sort of just dawned on me: I'm supposed to be here. The experience shaped my character, my personal being."
After leaving the academy without an assignment, he went to the Air Force Institute of Technology and completed his master’s degree in engineering. He then joined the 46th Test Group at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., where he spent time working on many large-scale test platforms. After that, he completed test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in 2006.
Despite the setbacks early in his career, Garay went on to fly the F-15 Eagle, the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the T-38 Talon.
"It all really worked out in the end," he said. "I have worked as an engineer in the Air Force for over 10 years, had the chance to fly a slew of aircraft as a flight test engineer, and tested the world's best missile and munitions technologies. To me, that's living the dream, … even if it happened by me stumbling onto it."
The major never returned to the mountain that almost killed him, but said he may eventually climb up Eagles Peak again, if only to prove a point.
"I'd like to go back and hike it again, maybe someday with my son," the father of two said. "Obviously, I won't try to climb down the face next time."