On a sunny Sunday morning, amid an unseasonably warm Alaska spring, Jessica Gamboa and her Army husband went for a run along a rarely-traveled road on sprawling Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
The couple planned to run 30 minutes out and 30 minutes back, with the husband running at his typically faster pace and the wife trailing behind. They would meet back in the spot they left their truck.
Jessica was excited to break in the new orange running shoes she bought to use in a half marathon, but her iPhone died the night before, so she ran with only the sounds of the forest: wind whispering through spruce and birch, ravens cawing, moose brushing around.
Moments after her husband ran out of sight, a little after 11 a.m., just 20 minutes into the run, Sarah spotted something that brought her to a halt: a ball of fur on the horizon.
“I saw a little cub right there, very close to the left side of the road,” Gamboa, a native of Sacramento, Calif., told Army Sgt. Eric-James Estrada in an interview from a hospital bed. “Immediately my thoughts were, where’s the mama bear?
“If cubs are around, the mama bear’s not very far.”
Soon thereafter the sow appeared and trotted her way. The rest was something of a blur.
Despite assuming a posture she thought would convey her innocent intentions, the sow felt threatened and instincts kicked in. Jessica was bitten and clawed, and the grizzly clamped onto her buttocks and carried her across the trail and toward the cubs.
“This is pretty much how I’m going to die, this is it,” she thought as she curled into the fetal position and played dead.
But the sow, after an attack that spanned “several minutes,” sauntered away with her cubs in tow.
Maj. Angela Webb, a JBER spokesperson, described what happened next as “heroic.”
“The trauma she went through and the walk out was heroic,” Webb said.
After laying and waiting to make sure the sow would not return, Jessica got up and made her way to a clearing. Her bright orange shoes took on a different meaning than they had a while earlier.
“My first thought was get somewhere where you’re more visible,” she said. “Even if it was my last moments, at least I would be found more easily.”
There was blood everywhere, pulsing from her neck, draining from her torso and thigh. But instead of laying in the dirt and giving up, she eventually picked up and started walking toward densely occupied parts of the base.
Sgt. Collin Gillikin of Rockford, Mich., had slipped away for an early morning of fishing when he spotted Jessica limping along the road. She looked at first to Gillikin like a tired marathon runner, maybe a competitor in one of the many weekend races.
“She was stumbling a little bit, which is why I slowed down,” he said. And then he realized the muddy stuff caked on her face and stomach was a mix of dirt and blood, and the reality of the situation set in. “I was in pure amazement that this woman was still talking and able to comprehend what I was saying.”
Gillikin is a combat medic, and he helped her into the truck and drove her to an on-base hospital. She was then transferred to the Alaska Native Medical Center, where a week and a half after the May 18 attack she is still recovering.
"I think everybody was kind of under shock,” Gamboa said. "They had to clean me up like crazy before they could even touch me with any medical device."
Base officials believe the attack on Gamboa was an isolated incident.
"It was a 'wrong time, wrong place' situation," Webb said.
Editor's note: An initial version of this story inaccurately gave Jessica Gamboa's first name as Sarah and has been corrected.