Barksdale Air Force Base, Bossier LA - After months of suffering from over a dozen seizures a day and multiple failed suicide attempts including one that left her with a broken leg, 3x combat deployed US Army purple heart recipient Marlene Rodriguez, knew it was time to try something, anything to get her off the booze and medication mixed roller coaster she was on.
For weeks she had blown off her best friend, who had been begging her to join in on a whitewater rafting trip down Idaho’s Salmon River. Finally, with thoughts of seizures and drowning in the back of her head, she picked up the phone, called her friend and said she’d go.
With visions of tracer rounds streaking through the night skies of the middle east, Benjamin Breckheimer raised his right hand and joined the Army. He wanted to serve and take the fight to the enemy. “I came in as a operating room surgical technician and ended up spending a year in Baghdad trying to save lives, but guys just kept coming in all busted up and it seemed so unfair that I wasn’t up there on the front lines with them,” reflected US Army Staff Sergeant Breckheimer, to an audience of Airmen from Air Force Global Strike Command’s 2nd Bomb Wing this week, he added, “So I cross trained into combat arms when I came off that first deployment and became a Cavalry Scout.”
Not long after advanced scout training, Benjamin got what he asked for with a re-deployment. This time he’d be heading further east to Afghanistan. Three months into his tour, the ground beneath Staff Sergeant Breckheimer’s Stryker vehicle erupted, leaving Benjamin nearly dead, the sole recipient of the majority of the enemies blast.
With life going out of him, his team dragged him out of the drivers compartment through a passageway referred to by Scouts as the ‘hell hole’. “The guys struggled at first to get me out… then someone realized that my right leg was still attached by a few tendons, once they snaked my severed leg up out of the engine compartment it was pretty easy to slide be back and out of what was left of the stryker.”
With three days of water behind her, Marlene Rodriguez realized that the 5 day rafting trip she was on was going to be over without her having stepped foot off of the huge ‘cadillac’ supply raft she was on. She’d spent hours each day watching her friend and others take on the rapids in the much smaller sport kayaks and knew it was time to sink or swim. “Something inside me just clicked, I hadn’t had a seizure in a while and I was like ‘what the hell’ I might as well try this kayaking stuff out.”
It wasn’t long before she found herself navigating a major set of rapids. “ It was crazy, I didn’t really know what I was doing and then suddenly I shot out of a wave and was in calm water at the bottom. It took me a few moments to realize that I’d survived and I was so stoked I raised my paddle over my head and pumped the air. I hadn’t felt this level of happiness in a long long time.”
Years after Benjamin’s fateful day in Afghanistan he was discharged from San Antonio’s Wounded Transition Unit with pins, rods, screws, skin graphs… and the majority of his limb salvaged right leg.
As his moved his fused right ankle across the concrete sidewalk towards his car, Benjamin knew he never wanted to returnThe reality was that he didn’t know if all the surgeries and thousands of hours of therapy had even been worth it. “Not long before being discharged my wife served me with divorce papers. If you think getting blown up is bad, try dealing with that mental mind crusher is way worse.”
Unchecked and waisting away both mentally and physically in his house, Benjamin found himself late one night holding a near empty bottle of booze in one hand and 9mm revolver in the other. “Just before I pulled the trigger I took one last look at my service dogs and realized just how screwed up things had gotten. Even in my foggy mental state it hit me, I lived alone and didn’t get visitors. If I went through with it, my dogs would be forced to eat what was left of my head and body just to survive - the thought of that was enough to make me call it off for the night.”
Benjamin woke up the next morning and realizing just how close he’d come to quitting the night before and it forced him to seriously reflect on life, his family and friends. “I got pissed off at myself, I came so close to causing my family so much pain and suffering that I knew it was time to do something to squash the dark thoughts. I’d always been fascinated by Mount Everest, so lacking a better plan I decided that I was going to climb it.”
Without realizing it Marlene Rodriguez had triggered something powerful enough to do what medication hadn’t been able to do - she stopped having seizures. “I sat there floating in the calm water and realized how cool it would have been for Private Jones to have been able to do something like this.” Jones was one of Sergeant Rodriguez’ soldiers who died from an IED during her second deployment in Iraq. “From that moment on I decided that I was going to start living life and dedicating my adventures to Private Jones.”
Today, Benjamin represents the 3rd Purple Heart recipient to have stood on top of the world, having achieved the summit of Mount Everest in May of 2017.
Today, Marlene has committed herself to attempting to be the first female purple heart recipient to summit the world’s tallest mountain and is training constantly between her undergraduate studies.
As members of the all volunteer nonprofit American300 mentoring program, Benjamin and Marlene along with the program’s founder Rob Powers spent three days sharing these and other life stories with Airmen at Barksdale Air Force Base. The goal being to hammer home a message of never quitting with everyone they encountered.
* #BeThere is a hashtag created by our Department of Defense Suicide Prevention programs. September represents Suicide Prevention Month for the DoD and Veteran’s Affairs Office.
For more information on American300 or to reach out to any of the organizations mentors visit: www.American300.org