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Justin Connaher and John Pennell

May 24, 2014 - 7:00 pm

StoryCorps traveled to Alaska in February to record the voices of our service men and women.

Justin Hayward Connaher was named after the lead singer of the 1960s rock group, Moody Blues.

At age 5, he knew he was going to be a paratrooper.  At 38, he knows he’s a survivor.

As part of StoryCorps at JBER, Justin spoke with his friend John Pennell about one of his earliest jumps.

Listen now:

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Justin Connaher, a former parachute infantryman in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, is seen at Ft. Bragg, N.C. before a jump in the mid 1990s.

Justin: “I almost broke my arm trying to jump off our garage roof with a blanket. It didn’t work nearly as well as I’d planned it. But that’s where that seed started for me.”

John: “So that was your first introduction to gravity?”

Justin: “It was! The hard way.”

“You know, sometimes you think, in your mind, you know the way some things are going to be like. And I had thought about what it would be like almost my entire life, to jump out of an airplane, up until that point. And it was not… anything… like I thought it would be. 

“The first time wasn’t so bad. The subsequent jumps were more terrifying because I knew what to expect. Anyone who’s done it and tells you they’re not scared every single time they step outside the airplane is lying. But it was a rush, like nothing I’d ever felt before in my life. It was better than sex.”

“Our company executive officer when I was at Ft. Bragg — he had a Magic 8 ball on his desk. Before every jump the entire company would file past his desk and shake the Magic 8 ball. ‘Am I going to burn in on this jump?’ ‘YES!’ it would say, every time. It was broken on ‘YES!’ Every time we jumped — very superstitious, very regimented — we did it every time.”

John: “Did it ever say no?”

Justin: “It did say no. To me. Once.”

“This was a night jump. I got to the door. I jumped. Everything was good. I counted to four-thousand. My chute opened. I checked everything over. Everything is good. I’m looking around. It was a nice, moonlit night. I could see other jumpers. I was enjoying the ride. And then I noticed I was falling faster than everybody else. That doesn’t make sense. I’m a small guy. I’m 130 lbs. Even with gear, I could be the first man out the door and I’d be the last one to hit the ground. 

“I looked up at my chute and it had partially collapsed into a half-cigarette roll. This is very serious. I was losing altitude very quickly and the ground was coming up extremely fast.

“I have no recollection of actually hitting the ground. But I do remember a terrible crack. It was probably when my skull was fractured. It hit the inside of my helmet when I hit the ground. From that I have a traumatic brain injury. I was unconscious. When I woke up I couldn’t see or move. I was partially paralyzed. 

“The recovery process has been very difficult. When I got out of the Army I was in a bad place. My whole identity, up to that point in my life, was ‘I’m going to be a solider’ or ‘I am a soldier’ — and that’s going to be my career until I retire. And that was taken away from me. It’s not someone’s fault. I don’t blame the Army. It just happened. 

“The strength that I draw in my life is from my wife, Jessica, and my son. She is an amazing woman.”

John: “As you know, this interview could be kept in the Library of Congress. Let’s say somewhere down the line, your son’s grandkids want to see what crazy old pap was really like. What would you tell them?”

Justin: “In my life, in the life I have shared with my wife up until this point, we have had so many trials, together — early in our lives. Continue to fight. Continue to give every day the best that you can in that day. Because things will get better.”

***

You’ve been listening to StoryCorps with service men and women of Alaska. Justin Connaher’s interview is archived at the Library of Congress.

These days Justin works as a photojournalist. His pictures regularly appear in newspapers nationwide.

This piece was edited by Bede Trantina at Alaska Public Media.

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