Jessica Gamboa is a 25-year-old mom of a four-year-old, so when she came across another mom while out for a morning run on May 18, her instinct immediately told her what to do. That other mom was an Alaskan brown bear, and Gamboa had unwittingly jogged too close to mama bear’s cub.
Only Gamboa’s amazingly fast thinking saved her from the protective mama bear’s attack, but her method of self-defense was not what you’d expect, perhaps especially from a military mom. Gamboa, originally from Sacramento, California, lives on the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, where her husband, Jacob, is stationed with the Army’s 4th Infantry Brigade Airborne Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
“I just completely surrendered,” Gamboa said, in an interview from her hospital bed made public by the Defense Department. “I actually can’t even believe this actually really happened. It seems still surreal, just for the fact that I’m still alive — seems unreal. “
Pretending to be dead saved Jessica Gamboa’s life, and allowed her to see her four-year-old son again.
“I have a baby boy at home,” Gamboa said. “He’s all I wanted to live for.”
Gamboa and her husband were taking their morning run together, but at some point along the route on the massive military base, they drifted apart. Gamboa was by herself on an isolated stretch of road when she saw a brown bear cub wandering along the side of the road.
The Army gives all new arrivals at the base a course in life in Alaska, which includes the possibility that they might run into bears. Gamboa knew when she saw the cub that the mama bear would be right behind. And there she was, on the path in front of Gamboa, running directly toward her — along with a second cub.
Gamboa could have made a run for it, could have looked for a weapon to fight back — but she didn’t. She just curled up in a ball and didn’t make a sound. She took a beating from the bear, which picked her up, slammed her to the ground and pummeled her. But she came out of it alive.
Gamboa suffered fractures in her neck and slashing wounds to her neck, arms, leg and ear. The bear, figuring she had successfully defended her cubs, walked away. Jessica Gamboa was rescued only when, seemingly at random, Army Sergeant Collin Gillikin drove by — and Gillikin happened also to the a combat medic.
“I wasn’t a man of faith but it kind of made me think there really is something bigger than myself out there,” Gillikin said.
Mark Sledge, the base’s senior conservation law enforcement officer, says that Gamboa did exactly the right thing in her situation. He said that he had heard of only one other bear attack on the base, four years ago.
The Army mom is now just thankful to be alive — she is expected to make a complete recovery — and be back with her family. But she has learned something from her incredible survival story.
“When it comes to mama bear,” says Jessca Gamboa, “there’s not much that you can do.”