By Michelle Milliner, U.S. Army Research LaboratoryApril 1, 2013
Leap of Faith is a three-day seminar/growth experience created by Operation Support Our Troops -- America for family members who have lost a loved one while serving on active duty. The event addresses grief and loss and teaches principles of courage, trust, letting go and building community. The key principles of the seminar are how change happens, living fully again and moving forward into a "new normal."
James Nelson, operations chief at the Army Research Laboratory's Simulation and Training Technology Center in Orlando, Fla., and his family are beginning to live the "new normal." Last June, their lives were turned upside down by the tragic loss of their 20-year-old son, U.S. Army Spc. Brenden Salazar. Just 10 days after Brenden's Army airborne unit arrived in Afghanistan, his unit was struck with an improvised explosive device. The attack took the lives of both Brenden and Spc. Justin L. Horsley, and severely wounded two others.
"On day one, Dr. Doug Mckinley led sessions on living life after loss." Nelson said. "He focused on teaching us to explore the other side of grief by living life with conviction and passion to honor Brenden."
The second day attendees assembled at Homestead Air Base to meet up with the World famous U.S. Army Golden Knights to take the "Leap of Faith"; skydiving tandem from 13,000 feet.
The United States Army Parachute Team, nicknamed and commonly known as the Golden Knights, is a demonstration and competition parachute team drawn from US Army Paratroopers who have demonstrated excellence in their parachuting skills.
While not all attendees choose to jump, they are encouraged to discover their own "Leap of Faith" and commit to taking it.
"Both Jovanna and I jumped, it was the most peaceful time of my life," Nelson said. "I was the first one in our aircraft to jump out so I had to sit in the door during the ascent up which was very scary! I was ready to jump out by the time we got to 12,000 feet. When we finally did jump it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop."
Nelson recalls, "During our free fall, we glimpsed a small little rainbow in the clouds that we tried.to fly through. I believe it was Brenden smiling down and showing me he was there and he was ok.
It seems the highlight of the seminar was the final day. Nelson and his family along with the other families were given the opportunity to swim with the dolphins at the Key Largo Dolphin Rescue.
"We were in the water for almost an hour with the dolphins! We were able to swim with them, give them commands to sing, dance, jump, and clap," he said. "The water was very cold but after a couple of minutes you forgot all about it. Of the three days, we felt that was the best experience.
"The interaction with the dolphins was very therapeutic, you could see a sense of concern in their eyes, like they knew what we were feeling and they wanted to help."
Nelson continued, "Hannah was extremely close to her brother and is a fighter herself battling cystic fibrosis, really enjoyed the dolphins and the comfort they provided -- it was her favorite part of the trip."
"For me," he pauses. "It was the first time in seven months that I did not think of Brenden consistently -- I felt peace."
Leap of Faith seminars are held twice a year, in Chicago, Ill. in August and Homestead, Fla. in February. For more information on Leap of Faith contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.