02.27.12

Exclusive Photo: Gabrielle Giffords’s Navy SEAL Skydive

Before Giffords’s ordeal, she jumped from 12,000 feet with a Navy SEAL—who later suffered a grave wound in Afghanistan. An exclusive photo captures the pair's remarkable spirit, writes Michael Daly.

The Navy SEAL knew on first meeting with Gabrielle Giffords that she was remarkable, but he didn’t know how remarkable until a crystalline day in 2009, when he jumped with her from a training plane 12,000 feet over the Arizona desert.

“She’s smiling this huge smile as we go out of the plane,” the SEAL says of the congresswoman’s first parachute jump. “You don’t normally see that. Most of the time, people are terrified. She was smiling. She loved it.”

He was convinced that he’d glimpsed her very essence. “You can see in people’s souls,” he says. “I don’t care who you are, the ground is coming.”

Giffords still had that huge smile at 9,500 feet, when another skydiver took a photograph of her and the SEAL in tandem, both shining with pure and perfect joy in the pristine air, high above the world’s troubles.

A friend of Giffords’s happened to mention the photo to The Daily Beast last week—and it becomes only more powerful these three years later, with the knowledge of what would befall the ascendant star of American politics and one of our most elite secret warriors. This image has been part of the skydiving photographer’s portfolio and now reaches public view for the first time as a portrait of the spirit they’d both bring to the ordeals that awaited them in the days ahead. To hear the story that accompanies it is to wonder if it isn’t the exact spirit we need as a nation to get us through these often bleak and fractious times.

Months after the photo was taken, the SEAL was shot and gravely wounded in a gunfight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Giffords visited the SEAL at the hospital before she herself was shot in the head by a madman outside a suburban Arizona supermarket early last year. The SEAL then visited Giffords at the hospital. He found that Giffords was still Giffords, only more extraordinary given a circumstance that was too familiar.

“To be honest with you, I’ve seen a lot of people get shot in the head, and not too many of them lived,” says the SEAL, who asked for security reasons to be identified only as James H. “She got shot point-blank in the head, and there she is smiling and waving.”

She was still recovering her verbal faculties, but she was able to answer when he asked about a bracelet he saw on her wrist. “She smiled at me like I was an idiot,” the SEAL recalls. “She said, ‘Wonder Woman.’”

Giffords had, indeed, become a true Wonder Woman since the SEAL first met her during a 2008 congressional visit to Afghanistan. The team had briefed her on their particular part of the war. She and the SEAL fell into conversation, asking each other questions about their respective views on various issues. The talk turned to their mutual affection for southern Arizona. He told her that SEALs sometimes train there.

They were a perfect pair, beaming in the bright Southwest sun, the highly trained special operator and the elected official who is just innately special.

“I said, ‘Hey, you ought to come jump with us,’” he remembers. “She said, ‘Wow, that sounds cool.’”

Giffords wasn’t renowned as a daredevil, but her response wouldn’t have shocked those who knew her political pluck. She gave the team her email address, and the SEAL contacted her when they were planning a training trip to Arizona. She replied that she was going to be in her district that weekend, meeting staff. He repeated the invitation to come jump with them. “She said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” he recalls.

On the appointed morning, the SEAL expected Giffords to arrive with a big staff. She came on her own. “She showed up in jeans and a sweatshirt and had breakfast with us,” he says. “A super-gregarious person who enjoys people.”

The SEAL gave her a quick rundown on the dos and don’ts of jumping. They would be making a tandem jump, Giffords hitched to him with a harness. He would operate the chute. He told her to start in “position one,” with her arms tucked in. He would give her a tap when it was time to extend her arms to position two to match his own.

She remained remarkably at ease, even as the plane climbed to 12,000 feet and the big moment arrived. “She was just, ‘Hey, if that’s what you guys do, that’s what you do,’” he recalls.

She went into position one without prompting as they jumped and began to free-fall. The rush of the air was too loud for conversation.

“If she was screaming, I’d be able to hear her, but she wasn’t,” he says.

He got that glimpse into her fearless and joyful soul.

“She was smiling.”

The photograph confirms there was also unmistakable delight in the eyes behind her goggles. They were a perfect pair, as platonic as angels, beaming in the bright Southwest sun, the highly trained special operator and the elected official who is just innately special.

“She’s something,” the SEAL says. “She’s definitely a diminutive physical presence, but spiritually and intellectually, she’s a significant presence.”

After about a minute, at 5,500 feet, he activated the parachute. They slowed, and the rushing sound gave way to a hush that made the crystalline tranquillity complete. “I said, ‘Isn’t it quiet? Isn’t it clean? At this altitude away from everything,’” he recalls. “She said, ‘Yeah, it’s a very nice place.’”

She gazed down at the state that had sent her to Congress. “She just said, ‘I love Arizona! It’s beautiful!’” the SEAL remembers. “I said, ‘I’m with you. It is.’”

He concentrated on his immediate mission, and they returned to earth softly and right on target. Giffords excitedly summed it all up: “That was incredible!”

He realized only after they’d landed that he’d been so focused on making sure she didn’t get injured that he’d failed to signal her to shift to position two. “She said, ‘You didn’t tap me,’” he reports. “She remembered the procedure better than I did.”

She then set off to resume her busy schedule, which included staff meetings as well as interviews with candidates for the service academies.

“Most people, after their first skydive, they go drink or something,” the SEAL says. “She had meetings with her staff.”

The SEAL was deployed to Afghanistan again not long afterward, where he was severely wounded in a gun battle that summer. He was groggy and in the midst of many surgeries when Giffords came to visit him at the national naval medical center in Bethesda, Md., two weeks later. She brought with her that special presence and tranquillity as she sat speaking with his wife.

“They were both wives of Navy guys,” the SEAL says.

Giffords made another congressional trip to Afghanistan that fall and made sure to fulfill the SEAL’s request to give the comrades who were with him the night he was wounded a hug.

The SEAL was at home and still recovering on Jan. 8, 2011. His phone was suddenly flooded with calls, as a news flash blared on the television. A madman with a gun had materialized in the beautiful state that Giffords so loved. She and 18 other innocents had been shot as she held a “Congress on the Corner” meeting with constituents outside a Safeway.

“I was absolutely devastated that somebody could hurt her,” the SEAL recalls. “I just can’t believe anybody would want to hurt her.”

He says of their respective ordeals, “I was fighting because I wanted to. She was at a Safeway on a Saturday morning because she wanted to give her constituents a chance to see her. She didn’t want to be in a gunfight.”

Just as she had visited him, he went to visit her after she was stabilized and transferred to Memorial Hermann Medical Center in Texas. Her husband, astronaut and Navy captain Mark Kelly, had written instructions for visitors. “The thing that got me was, ‘Look her in the eyes and talk to her. She understands what you’re saying,’” the SEAL recalls.

He entered to see she not only understood, but remembered.

“She recognized me,” he says, “I told her I was glad to see her and I was glad that she was OK.”

She smiled as though they were again 9,500 feet above the world’s troubles. The visit was not nearly as wrenching as he might have expected. “It wasn’t hard,” the SEAL says. “It was almost relief; ‘All right, she’s all right.’”

He saw just how fitting it was for her to be wearing a superhero bracelet when she neared what was supposed to be the end of a physical-rehab session.“They would say, ‘OK, you need to go rest,’” the SEAL says. “She didn’t really want to. She would work and work and work. They had to actually force her to rest.”

The SEAL recalled something she had told him when they were talking on the day of the jump. “I asked her, ‘In your opinion, what is the one thing we could do as a country to make our nation better?’” he says. “She said, ‘You know, if everybody worked just a little bit harder, the amount of good that would occur would be monumental. Everybody just needs to work a little bit harder.’”

Giffords has kept working more than a little bit harder, and the SEAL is sure that her resignation from Congress is just a prelude to great things to come.

“I don’t think she’s done yet,” he says. “I think she’ll be even more compelling.”