Wounded Marine and Airmen Swap Stories of Survival

American300 Public Affairs- 9/29/12

Minot, North Dakota -  On February 22nd of this year, Tom Whittaker stood in front of a packed Minot Air Force Base theater.  The Englishmen now American citizen was visiting the 5th Bomb and 91st Missile Wings to help kickoff Air Force Global Strike Command’s ‘American300 Never Quit Series’. 

In attendance were Airmen from both Stryker Wings; nuclear missile and B52 bomber mission specialists. Senior Airmen Luke Helleksen, normally dozens if not hundreds of miles away from base serving on a missile alert facility as a missile chef was in attendance. 

“None of us knew what this American300 Never Quit thing was all about, but getting to meet the first amputee/disabled human being to summit Mount Everest seemed like a cool thing to do that day.” - Luke Helleksen

What Helleksen did know was that the winter wasn’t like any of his previous four at Minot... it was mild, there wasn’t much snow.   The warm weather outside was creating a false sense of spring and summer.  It was still February, but the sunny mild days were stacking up.  So were the thoughts Helleksen was having about dusting off his custom motorcycle and taking it out for an early bird spin;   it was that kind of mild winter.

With the polish of a speaker who had shared his story with millions; Tom Whittaker, took those in attendance on a journey.  A life story shared that included climbing the worlds most extreme mountains and striving to be the best.  A tale of destruction and darkness, the result of a drunk driver nearly killing the man. A yarn that included the amputation of the climbers right leg...the equivalent of a pianists loosing his hands.  A story of success after being knocked down.  Whittaker, not only had accomplished the unthinkable, but he had established the world’s first outdoor recreation program for disabled/handicapped individuals along the way. All because people around him had constantly challenged him to keep pushing... keep living.   

“I remember Mr. Whittaker speaking of how a bullet was aimed at all of us... that it had already left the barrel of life’s gun.  That one day it would find us... when we least expected it.”  Luke Helleksen, adjusted in the chair that had been put out for him in the Rough Rider Suite's living room.  He sat in full Airmen Battle Uniform, minus his left combat boot which was replaced with a black mobile walking cast that ran up his leg to just below his knee.   Next to him stood his walker with it’s modified rest that was serving as a hook for his ABU cap.  “I remember thinking about how warm it was that day... how I’d be getting my motorcycle out early this year, I never thought that life was going to throw me the kind of curve ball that Tom (Whittaker) had gone through.”

Across from the missile chef sat Robi Powers, the founder of American300 who had taken up position next to Luke’s wife Ashney.  Ashney had driven her husband to meet with American300’s current ‘Never Quit Series’ touring guest Daniel Gilyeat.  Like Whittaker, Dan Gilyeat had to ‘reset’ and drive forward in life after loosing his leg.  Instead of a drunk driver causing the destruction, Gilyeat, a retired Marine had lost his left leg to a terrorist bomb in Iraq back in 2005.  

“Meeting and sharing my experience and listening to all of what you’ve gone through is exactly what I’ve been doing ever since I lost my leg” said Gilyeat, a father and devoted husband... Marine  “We have to stick together, share our stories and make sure that no one falls through the cracks.  To me it’s just unacceptable for any service member to not know from shared experience what is possible; I love sharing my story and experiences.” 

Gilyeat, arrived at Minot AFB along with fellow amputee wounded Marine Sal Gonzalez to continue the mission of American300’s Never Quit Series “I’ve spent so much time down at San Antonio Medical Center sharing my story of recovery, my story of new abilities found.  Being out here with American300 is perfectly natural.  Meeting Luke and Ashney, talking and listening is exactly what I’ve dedicated myself to doing ever since God gave me a second chance on life.”

Second chances...

“I remember so clearly telling myself that I was going to die if I didn’t do everything I could to slow my heart rate, relax despite the blood that was pumping out of my stump and commotion that was going on all around me.” shared Gilyeat, who was the humvee's senior leader, he actually started telling jokes to help get his squad members to reset and focus on the mission while medic's were working on him.   Helleksen offered: “I remember feeling my chest tighten up and thinking to myself... this is it... I’m going to die right here in this ambulance on the way to the hospital."

Both men weren’t far off in their assessments.  Gilyeat had a Chaplain read him his last rights not once but twice on July 3rd 2005 in Iraq.  Helleksen, arrived at the hospital and was rushed into the operating room where a heart surgeon who was normally not on duty in Minot was able to repair his bursting aorta on July 25th 2012. 

“After the accident, Tom Whittaker’s talk, the things he had said came rushing back.  I’ve used his example and things he shared more then once to help get me through a day.”  - Luke Helleksen

For over three hours the group shared stories, compared medical histories and bedside experiences.  Ashney, unlike Gilyeat or Whittaker’s family members was just feet away from her husband as he lay in a broken pile of twisted metal and flesh that day back in July.  Her husband had been wiped out by a car turning into his motorcycles path as she followed in the family car just outside the base back in July.   “When Luke and I found out that Dan was going to be here we reached out to command and asked if there was anyway that we could meet.  We’ve received amazing support from Luke’s unit, and getting a chance to meet another American300 guest like Dan is truly special” says Ashney “There’s just certain things that being around someone who has gone through something similar in life brings to the discussion." 

Swapping stories and sharing life's lessons with individuals who volunteer up their time to ensure that no one slips through life's cracks;  American300 Never Quit Series!

Air Force Global Strike Command Message:    At the heart of the American300 "Never Quit" tour program is the idea of taking stories from all walks of life to Airmen to keep them inspired while performing the tough duty they have to do. Airmen get the opportunity to meet and interact with athletes, veterans and others who have triumphed over serious adversities.

These guests offer suggested coping mechanisms to meet life's challenges while promoting the idea of resiliency and mental toughness. The intent is to create a forum between resilient individuals and Airmen in hopes that different perspectives provide food for thought of how to overcome challenges or adversities.

For more in American300 visit:  www.American300.org

For information on Air Force Global Strike Command go to:  www.afgsc.af.mil

American300 is a 501c3 all volunteer nonprofit organization.  No federal endorsements are ever intended.   Media questions for American300 can be directed to: robpowersusa@aol.com   

Luke Helleksen receiving his Staff Sergeant strips while still recovering in the hospital - August 2012


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