By Brian Donnelly
Nobody in my unit knew I was there. I think I told a random captain I was going to Munich, but that was a good three hours north of Arco, Italy and the cliff where I stood. Work was the furthest thing from my mind as I triple-checked my parachute and zipped up my wingsuit. My heart raced, and my knees started to shake. Conditions were perfect, and the morning sunrise lighting up the valley calmed my nerves a bit. I peered over the edge into 1,200 feet of empty space leading to a steep, boulder-ridden talus for my first experiment in human flight. My mind grew quiet as I pushed off the rock.
I decided I wanted to apply to West Point at a young age for pretty Standard reasons: to escape a “normal” life, to serve my country, and to help solve a few of the world’s problems. From childhood, I’d felt a strong desire to push beyond all conventional limitations in mind, body, and spirit. Military experience felt like a solid first step in that direction, at least for an 18-year-old from a small town who was getting tired of being one of the most driven guys in the room. Getting into West Point felt like being granted parole from that life. There were two major wars going on at the time, so that added motivation.
After a few months at the Academy though, I began to feel as though I’d been paroled from one institution only to fall into another. There were good people around, but everyone was too busy being busy. I needed something else if I could expect to survive 47 months with any degree of sanity. And then, one Saturday morning, I watched the parachute team doing practice jumps onto the parade field and decided to try out. Scenic jump runs over West Point and the Hudson Highlands kept my sanity in check. I found tranquility those afternoons, watching our UH-1H Huey helicopter fall farther away as I performed my characteristic slow backflip 4,000 feet above one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
I loved the feeling of flying but needed to do it in its purest form. Skydiving was always a stepping stone for me; BASE jumping was the goal. It is a sport with no rules beyond the laws of physics, a perfect balance to my military career where adherence to regulations governed every aspect of life. I made my first BASE jump off a bridge near Millau, France over Spring Break 2008 and was hooked. It was skydiving distilled to the bare essentials, the Bacardi 151 of extreme sports, a 150-proof mix of fear and adrenaline. The difference between life, extreme pain, or death can be a measured in fractions of a second and separated only by judgement, skill, and a bit of luck.
Standing on top of a fixed object, judging winds, locating landing obstacles, and planning contingencies while every emotion I’d repressed for the past week was flushed out by raw fear, my life was completely my own. It was not an addiction, but a constant calling.
I was taking a risk BASE jumping as a cadet at the Academy. If I was seriously injured or arrested, I’d likely be kicked out, owe the U.S. government a lot of money or time, and lose all chance of becoming an officer. I strove to be perfect, leaving little to chance. I kept my BASE jumping quiet, though not covert.
My first wingsuit BASE jump in Arco had special significance. A little less than a year earlier, a close friend had died on his first wingsuit BASE jump, the first of many jumpers I’ve known who’ve lost their lives. But my jumps that day were successful and helped clear my head as I prepared for the challenges ahead. Three days later, I was on a plane bound for Romania to pick up my first infantry platoon for the final days of their training exercise. I spent most of my time in Romania trying to look like I had some idea of what I was doing. The butter bar on my chest quickly gave it all away, but at least I had a Ranger Tab, which provided some degree of respect in a combat unit.
At work, I often felt like a glorified babysitter for a platoon of people who were, on average, three to five years older than me, but who still made adolescent mistakes. BASE jumping helped me focus though, to make clear-headed decisions in life-or-death-or-jail situations, and sift through the noise when weighing tough choices. The quiet competence I learned to value from my sport always made me good at my job. I had some promising soldiers, but the organization was exhausted from multiple rotations and it was hard work stitching together a unit that I could confidently call combat effective and able to perform under pressure.
Every long weekend, after telling my guys not to drink and drive, cheat on their wives, smoke weed, fight cops, or marry strippers, I escaped to the mountains and hit the reset button. A day of flying through my favorite Swiss valley with friends from all over the world, before hitting the Horner Pub and sharing a few pints and life stories always put work stress back into perspective.
I managed my dueling identities as well as I could. Still I never felt like I fit in with either tribe. I had developed an acceptance of life’s fragility from two communities where people die from small mistakes and unfortunate circumstances, and I occasionally joked that I wasn’t sure I’d live to 30. But I was never the live-for-the-moment type that I tended to meet at BASE jumper bars.
I also found it increasingly difficult to follow a career path in the Army. While I had originally joined expecting to push my limits, I ultimately felt constrained as a junior officer. The Army is a time intensive job, and while I fully accepted the commitment, I didn’t feel like I was being personally fulfilled from it. As I moved on from being a platoon leader, I found it increasingly difficult to sit behind a desk and do administrative and planning work. After sneaking past security onto a construction site with friends in the middle of the night, waiting 30 minutes at the top of the scaffolding 180 feet above the tiny landing area to get comfortable with the winds, exhaling fear, and executing a flawless jump and egress plan, the font size on a PowerPoint slide couldn’t have felt more meaningless.
My outlook on BASE jumping started to change though in July 2012. I was on post-deployment leave after a rotation in Afghanistan and eager to spend time in the mountains. I made some dream jumps that summer, but it was a moment sitting down at the Horner Pub with a good friend that sticks out in my mind. The bartender poured each of us three shots of bourbon, one for each wingsuit BASE jumper who had died in the mountains the week before. The simple gesture and our jumps the next day are standard practice for paying respects in the sport. There is nothing in this world like curling you toes over the edge of a railing or piece of rock, but the sport was never worth dying for. I made my last wingsuit jump that summer. The risks in wingsuiting were too high; I’ve known too many jumpers who’ve died.
My military career was also changing as I quickly moved to Fort Bragg for Civil Affairs. The job was challenging and helped fill the void that wingsuiting had left, but after a few years my career followed a familiar pattern. I again felt constrained, underutilized, and unable to have the long-term effect I wanted on the mission or organization. I knew it was time to leave.
BASE jumping always provided me with release when I needed it, and I have found ways of adjusting how I approach jumping as my life and career have evolved. Hitting the reset button one more time, I attended an international BASE jumping event in Malaysia in September 2016, while on terminal leave from the Army and just before my 30th birthday. There was no better way to prepare for my next adventure.
Brian Donnelly is a former Army Infantry and Civil Affairs Officer who has accumulated over 400 BASE jumps all over the world. He holds a B.S. from West Point, an M.P.A. from Bowie State University, and is currently working on a PhD in International Relations while planning his next adventure.