The paratrooper switched parachutes with another jumper. He wanted a bigger size.
He got more than he bargained for.
From 1,600 feet, Spc. Cody Gibson, 20, crashed to the ground when both his main and reserve chutes failed to deploy properly, Oct. 29, 2015, at Salerno Drop Zone.
He lived to tell the story.
“They called ‘Green light, go,’ and I went to go jump out of the aircraft, and soon as I jumped out, everything went wrong from there,” said Gibson, a 6 feet, 2 inch, 200 pound, self-described outdoorsman.
“The main chute came out of the chute, but it looked like a cig (cigarette) roll to me and as soon as I realized my main had malfunctioned, I pulled my reserve. My reserve managed to deploy, but it didn’t catch air and it was tangled up with my main chute.”
It was a long drop, but Gibson wasn’t staring at death. He was focusing on getting his chute deployed.
“People asked me what I was thinking all the way down and I say, ‘I wasn’t thinking. I was trying to yank my parachute open.’ I was conscious all the way down, and I was still conscious when I hit the ground. They told me I blacked out a couple times when I was in the hospital … I don’t remember much.”
Gibson was transported to Womack Army Medical Center, and later airlifted to the University of North Carolina Hospitals at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
He had sustained a ruptured spinal cord, two broken bones in the left foot, a fractured right ankle, broken right knee, fractured sternum, traumatic brain injury, and a fractured orbital around his right eye.
His L3 and L4 vertebrae, which support body weight and controls knee extension and foot motion, had to be fused together.
But, Gibson’s greatest fear, he said, was when he couldn’t walk because of swelling and damaged nerve cells.
“I was paralyzed for about three days in the hospital. That was probably the scariest part of all,” he said. He spent days, weeks, learning to walk again, learning self-care, and how to dress himself.
Nearly a month after the fall, Gibson was assigned to Fort Bragg’s Company B, Warrior Transition Battalion.
There, he continued to rehab.
And then August 2016 came along.
Gibson had been experiencing swelling and pain in his right ankle. He couldn’t shake it. But, when you plummet 1,600 out of an airplane, residual pain is a possibility.
It wasn’t residual pain.
MRIs at WAMC and a return trip to UNC confirmed the diagnosis — osteosarcoma, a cancer that affects the bones and mostly shows up in juveniles, not the right ankle of a grown man.
“I had to watch my grandma go through it (cancer) and she passed away from esophageal cancer. So, when they (doctors) told me, I didn’t know what to think of that,” Gibson said.
For the paratrooper who had found Fort Bragg by way of Kansas, it was a new battle.
Gibson said he weighed his treatment options — chemotherapy and amputation versus an ankle fusion.
The fusion could likely lead to lost mobility, arthritis, and, like a bad check that returns, subsequent amputation. The fusion also couldn’t guarantee that the cancer would not return.
He chose chemo and amputation.
“I told them to just get rid of it. It wasn’t worth the hassle.”
The fall didn’t take his leg. Cancer did.
But, Gibson, the son of Mitchell, a diesel mechanic and Christy, an administrative assistant, was prepared to fight.
There’s one thing, for sure, he learned at his father’s knee “He’s the one who teaches me to work hard,” said Gibson, pensively, but assuredly.
“My dad is the one that built my strength up. I was always outside helping him; he was teaching me to stand up for myself.”
Mitchell and Christy made Fisher House their home. His older brother, Christian, has been a great help as well.
“My parents have been there the whole time,” he said.
Younger sister, Savana, moved into the WTB to help with care.
“The WTB has been great. Without this place, I don’t know where I’d be,” he said. “They helped me get back on my feet with adaptive sports and everything,” said Gibson, who most enjoys archery.
Capt. Jessica Sepp, Co. B, WTB commander said everything she’s seen about Gibson has been impressive.
“He has the most positive attitude of anybody that I’ve seen in my life,” she said. “He doesn’t think about limitations.”
Sgt. Mark Green, a fellow Co. B, WTB Soldier, agreed.
“He’s one of the strongest individuals I’ve ever met,” Green said. “I can’t compare what he’s gone through; to survive that fall, and get to the point when he’s mobile again, to kick him when he’s down, to take his leg to cancer — he’s faced it head on.”
The way forward includes a stay at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he’ll be fitted for a prosthetic leg.
“I’ve got to learn to walk for the third time in my life,” he said.
He had learned once as a baby, once after the fall, and again after the amputation.
The cancer is gone.
There’s not much time for looking back. There are theories as to why the chutes did not properly deploy such as that the canopy slider got twisted or problems with the drone parachute.
But, to Gibson, who survived the fall, who beat cancer, it doesn’t matter.
He joined the military in January 2015 to serve his country, to fulfill a dream.
“I wanted to do some good in my life. I feel like everybody should serve some time in their country’s military,” he explained.
As a Soldier, what he liked most was being part of a team, first as an infantry service member with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and then with the Co. B, WTB.
“I know it’s a great way to make friends. I’ve always been an outdoorsy guy, that’s helped me a lot. All we do is we’re outside doing something. That’s why we joined the military, or at least infantry; that’s why I joined. I didn’t want to get put behind a desk doing paperwork all day.”
After treatment, Gibson plans to medically retire and pursue a career in aeronautical engineering or earn a pilot’s license.
“I’m kind of just going with the flow of things right now,” Gibson said. He will ultimately go back to the outdoor activities he once enjoyed — fishing, camping, whitewater rafting.
On that fateful day in October, Gibson took his ninth jump from an aircraft and fell into a reality he could have never imagined.
He learned that Army strong isn’t cliché, it’s a way of life. He learned that nine lives aren’t just for cats, it’s for men who stare death in the face and do not flinch.
“I’ve gotten a lot better. I’m a long ways from the time I fell out that plane,” said Gibson, who lives by a motto now that he keeps saved on his cellphone.
“No matter how good or bad you think life is, wake up each day and be thankful for life. Someone somewhere else is fighting to survive,” he reads. (Author unknown).
“I tended to do that when I was in chemo, because I was on the pediatric ward and osteosarcoma is more common in children … I was having to walk around and see all these children that were going through chemotherapy. It’s sad. But, it also gave me motivation to try to do something, too. If they’re strong enough to do it, I can do it, too. It’s just something kids shouldn’t have to go through,” Gibson said.
“I’m just thankful to be here.”