ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Jessica Gamboa grew up hearing you should play dead during a bear attack, and she put that knowledge to the ultimate test when she ran into a brown bear on the grounds of a military base.
The bear knocked Gamboa down, then picked her up and threw her to the ground. The bear went on to pummel Gamboa several times more with her powerful paws.
Throughout the May 18 attack, Gamboa lay in a fetal position and remained silent.
That action likely saved her life.
"I actually can't even believe this actually really happened," the 25-year-old woman said in a videotaped interview released by the Army on Thursday. "It seems still surreal, just for the fact that I'm still alive — seems unreal. "
In the interview taped Tuesday at her hospital bed, Gamboa said she surrendered herself to the bear during the attack at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage after she encountered the animal and her two cubs. Gamboa, of Sacramento, California, is married to a soldier assigned at the base to the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.
The Army also released an interview with Sgt. Collin Gillikin, a combat medic from Rockford, Michigan, who rescued her after the mauling, which left Gamboa with lacerations to her neck, arms and legs, a torn ear and neck fractures. Her neck wound is visible in the video.
Mark Sledge, senior conservation law enforcement officer at the base, said he knows of only one other close encounter with a bear. In 2010, a black bear gnawed a child's leg without breaking the skin when a group of children saw it and played dead. The animal ran off when a girl yelled at it, Sledge said. In this case, playing dead was the wrong thing to do because the bear had not taken an offensive action before the children laid down.
But Gamboa responded just as she should have, said Sledge, who participates in briefings introducing newly arrived J-BER service members to life in Alaska, including dealing with bears and moose. Gamboa's actions showed the bear she was not a threat.
"All that sow was worried about was the protection of her babies," Sledge said.
The day of the attack, Gamboa and her husband, Jacob, were jogging at the sprawling base when they became separated.
Gamboa was about 20 minutes into her run when she saw a cub on the side of the road. She immediately knew the mother bear had to be around. Sure enough, there it was, trotting toward her. She also saw the second cub.
It all happened so fast she's not sure if she was being bitten or lashed. She remembers the sow knocked her down, picked her up and carried her to the side of the road where the cubs were. The bear flopped her down on a grassy embankment and pummeled her, paused and attacked two more times while Gamboa lay curled in a fetal position. She didn't scream or fight.
And then the bear left.
Gamboa laid there for a couple minutes then crawled out of the embankment and rested some more. There was blood everywhere, her head hurt and her neck was pulsing.
"I felt completely like I was beaten half to death," said Gamboa, who has a 4-year-old son.
She called out for her husband as loudly as she could, but got no response. She prayed for strength to make it back to their truck so she could call 911.
Holding both hands to her bleeding neck, she started walking back on the road, hoping someone would see her. Then she saw a car, which was driven by Gillikin. The soldier had cleaned out his car of all medical supplies and had nothing to treat her with. He rushed her to the base hospital, and Gamboa was later transferred to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.
She was released from the hospital Thursday.
Gillikin, also a brigade member, said the experience changed his life. Until then, he was never a man of faith.
"It kind of made me realize there's something bigger than myself out there," he said.
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