Fall Taught Major to Get Back Up
(August 13, 2010)
|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.,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
By Samuel King Jr.
96th Air Base Wing
American Forces Press Service
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