“I’m a schoolteacher from Ohio. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Jessica Buchanan asked herself this seemingly rhetorical question, mollifying her fear over a decision to travel south to a different town in Somalia with her humanitarian group that had been working on mine risk education and demining in the region. Buchanan knew that if something were to go wrong, it would be during transit. She was right.
In October 2011, Buchanan and a colleague were kidnapped by Somali pirates who took them to a remote desert location where they were held captive for 93 days. Buchanan slept on a mat in an open field, guarded at all times by men with automatic rifles – men who demanded “big money” for her release. She tried to explain to them that she was a schoolteacher and humanitarian aid worker; there simply was no big money.
Upon her capture, Buchanan had two basic thoughts: 1. This is so bad and 2. No matter how this turns out, my life has changed forever. Again, she was right. Her experience – from the terror of the initial kidnapping to her agonizingly long three months in the desert to her dramatic rescue by SEAL Team 6 – altered her perspective on life and how she chooses to experience her journey going forward.
Speaking to the Fire-Rescue International 2023 General Session Thursday morning, Buchanan shared three lessons she took from her harrowing time in the desert – lessons she hopes firefighters, and really everyone, can internalize in order to remain hopeful even in the most dire of circumstances.
1. Change is the author of our stories
Buchanan emphasized that no great story isn’t driven in part by change. Change is inevitable and essentially “stands back to see what we’re going to do with it.” Change wants to write the entire story she said, but “we get the final say.”
2. We have the option to choose
Buchanan explained that we are six times more likely to demonstrate resilience when we realize our own autonomy over our lives and our choice in the middle of change. She reflected on her many days in the desert, “alone with me, myself and I,” and her personal realization that this experience could actually be an opportunity. She had considered taking time off work – she joked this was NOT what she had in mind – but she found herself with time, solitude and nothing to do. So, she decided to get busy in her mind, focusing on memories from throughout her life, and making plans for the future, even knowing she might not be able to experience them. “I would choose what to think,” she said.
3. Change is our proof of life
While the phrase “proof of life” is commonly associated with videos that prove a hostage is still alive, Buchanan said proof of life can instead be positively attributed to making changes – the proof we are still living. “When we’re not changing, we’re not living,” she said. She recalled how, during her experience, she reminded herself that her pain was important: “It means I am still alive.”
Remaining hopeful, even during such dire conditions, was critical, Buchanan said. She recalled how, during her captivity, her colleague would say, jokingly, “Send in the Marines!” and Buchanan would scoff, insisting, “No one is coming for us.” She was wrong.
Following her rescue, one of the Marines showed her his POW tattoo with the words “You are not forgotten.” He said those words are for her as well. They were going to do anything in their power to rescue her. This reinvigorated a sense of hope in her – a reminder that even when you feel alone, you have not been forgotten.
Firefighters have hard jobs that can sometimes feel thankless, she acknowledged, but it’s important to remember that even when you feel at your lowest, that is often when hope sweeps in to save the day.
“Belief will carry you through. As long as you are breathing, there is still hope.”