Friday, May 22, 2015

Surviving the Impossible: One Girl Scout's Story

Jessica Buchanan and husband Erik Lanemalm at the Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council's 2015 Success to Significance. 

On October 25, 2011, Jessica Buchanan and husband, Erik Landemalm, were working as humanitarian aid workers when Jessica and a colleague were kidnapped at gunpoint and held for ransom by Somali pirates. Jessica who was in the Girl Scouts of Western Ohio, had just married Erik two years earlier, and they were living in Mairobi, Kenya. According to her, their future couldn't have been brighter. 

"It was just like any other day," she told attendees of this year's Success to Significance (S2S) luncheon. She was contemplating what she would have for dinner when she got a call that placed her in the vehicle that would be her last free ride for more than 90 days. The car was cut off as they drove by what Jessica assumed were just "rude drivers". But then the men got out of their vehicle and opened her car door. That was when she saw the gun pointing at her and knew something had gone horribly wrong. 

The pirates commanded them to get in their vehicle. Looking at her colleague, Jessica mouthed, "What's happening?"

"We're being kidnapped," he said. 

Jessica was 32 years old and for the next three months she would be moved constantly, never knowing where she was, terrorized, held outside in filthy conditions and afraid she may never see her husband again. 

Erik worked furiously behind the scenes during these three months to bring his wife home. With the FBI, professional hostage negotiators and the United States government they worked day and night at the long, impossible process of negotiating her release.

Erik spoke to Jessica over the phone once after her kidnapping, which was when the pirates verified to agents that Jessica was indeed still alive. The ransom, which had originally started at $45 million, had been negotiated down to less than $4 million, but it was still more than Jessica's family could afford. After hearing his wife's voice on their call, Erik set down the phone and exclaimed to agents that it, he feared, was the last time he would ever talk with Jessica. 

On January 25, 2012, Jessica was dying. Starving and in excruciating pain, Jessica laid awake beneath the stars when suddenly the world erupted in gunfire. The night was alight with the flash of bullets, and all around her she could hear men shouting and running. All she could do was throw her mattress on top of herself, and lay as low to the ground as she could. What seemed like forever passed, and then she heard someone whisper her name. 

"Jessica," She heard a man say. 

She was too shocked to respond. 

"Jessica?" Someone behind the shade of night said again. It was an American voice. 

Then the voice said, "Jessica. It's the United States military. We're here to rescue you."

I'm safe, wasn't something she'd think however until they were finally flying away. The voice that called to her belonged to one of the soldiers of the infamous SEAL Team Six. The same team that killed Osama Bin Laden. 

As Jessica related her experience during this year's Success to Significance guests, not an eye was left dry in the room. The tale of remarkable resilience and rescue of course could only be summarized, but which is laid out in full detail in Jessica and Erik's memoir, Impossible Odds 

After this years event, Jessica spoke with Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council (GSSJC) and said her experience in Girl Scouts helped her through her ordeal. She learned how to sew in Girl Scouts, which helped her repair her clothes during her captivity when she was given few resources and her clothes were often torn as they moved her from place to place. Fundamentally, Jessica believes Girl Scouts contributed to the attitude of resiliency that she had to maintain to guard herself against the feeling of hopelessness.

"In us is a wealth of resources," she told GSSJC. "Unless we're tested, we may never know what we're made of. So in that way I am grateful for the experience. Now I know more about myself than I used to."

Before leaving S2S, Jessica shared this message for girls: 

"Women rock! We are amazing, strong, innovative, resourceful and we can make things happen. This experience taught me that all we have to do is believe we are, and it will be true."