Sun Valley, Idaho — Milestone Event
Jen and I met in 2012 when we were matched through a children’s grief counseling weekend. I’d been volunteering with a camp for the children of fallen Navy SEALs. Our first encounter was pretty awkward for both of us. She was reluctant to attend a “camp where you cry and talk about feelings” and I was anxious about being matched with a hesitant teenager. During quiet moments walking to and from various activities, we learned to trust one another. Our relationship developed into an awesome, unlikely, inspiring and wonderful friendship through sharing stories of her dad and her time with him. Immediately, I admired her refusal to let the grief of losing her dad define her.
Over the years, Jen and I had talked about Word of Honor Fund (WoHF) and how it had impacted her life since losing her dad. She first told me about the WoHF trip opportunity the summer after we first met, so I was ecstatic when she mentioned that she wanted me to go along as a female companion and friend.
“What would you like to do, Jen? Maybe learn to surf, or go hiking?”
“Nah, I think I’d like to learn to snowboard!”
“Oh…,” I responded.
Jen and I met up at Salt Lake City airport, where we also met her SEAL mentor—our fearless leader and friend of Jen’s dad (also our keeper of travel expenses, teller of amazing stories and endless source of wit and humor.) The three of us then took a small plane to Sun Valley, Idaho.
Before our first day of snowboarding, Jen pulled up an email on her laptop—it was her last email exchange with her father. Tears rolled down my cheeks as she read aloud the last words that they shared. Though he was undoubtedly busy, he had taken the time to share some thoughts and hopes for Jen’s continued success in sports and schoolwork. He also mentioned that he wanted to teach her to snowboard. I glanced at the date of the email: July 17, 2011. Not even a full month later, Jen’s dad had perished, along with many of his teammates, in a tragic helicopter crash.
The following morning, with new enthusiasm and bolstered excitement, Jen and I hit the slopes for our first lesson. Predictably, she picked up the technique and mechanics of the snowboard right away and within minutes could glide almost effortlessly down the mountain (leaving plenty of time to turn around and watch me fumble and fall, acquiring pantfulls of slushy snow with every tumble). I noticed that snowboarding wasn’t necessarily easier for Jen; it’s just there is a well-defined aspect of her personality that enabled her to embrace and learn the sport. That characteristic is fearlessness. She succeeded at learning to snowboard simply because she wasn’t afraid to fail. She established faith in her mentor and me—her teammates who would not allow her to fail—and that willingness to trust enabled her to leave her comfort zone and accomplish her goal. It brought to mind the work her dad, his teammates and other SEALs, performed every single day. It wasn’t that they failed to recognize the danger inherent to their work—in fact, they understood it all too well. What allowed them to succeed was a refusal to let fear dominate them—a knowledge that the greater goal was more important than a temporary fear.
Watching Jen learn to snowboard and develop the skills necessary to get down the mountain (coordination, balance, judgment, and a healthy dose of confidence) was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. That WoHF granted us this experience is something neither of us will ever forget. We talked a great deal about Jen’s dad that weekend. Our SEAL mentor shared stories of his time with him. We laughed, cried, and talked out loud about what he would think of our weekend adventure. Though I never met her father, the time I spent with Jen and her mentor made me feel as though I not only had met him, but also knew some of the greatest facets of his personality—bravery, fearlessness, sense of humor, love of family, and love for his daughter.
Returning home felt like finishing a physical and emotional workout. We were tired and a little sore, but at the same time grateful and energized. Leaving Jen at the airport was tough—after all, we’d shared a space together where we’d slept, laughed, cried (well, I cried) and chatted about life and adulthood. I hated to say goodbye. As we prepared to board separate planes to return home, I fished my WoHF baseball cap from my carry-on bag and put it on. Others may not understand the deep significance of WoHF and the work they do, but Jen and I will carry it in our hearts forever. As I boarded my flight, I smiled to myself—the way you smile when you know you’ve just experienced something extraordinary and wonderful.