How a ray of sunshine saved Dawn Page's life

In addition to competing in track, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Dawn Page (No. 446) will also suit up for sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, shooting and cycling. Michael Bottoms, USSOCOM Office of Communication

CHICAGO -- The mohawk haircut was new. Dawn Page, an Army sergeant first class assigned to Special Operations Forces, got it just before coming to the Warrior Games. As the lanky Page carried her starting blocks across the infield Sunday at Lane Technical College Prep High School, ready to run the women's 100-meter dash at the Warrior Games, she broke her steely concentration briefly to nod at her wife in the stands.

"She looks so cool," said Dana Childress-Page, leaning over the railing above the track at the competitors below. "I love her so much."

Lane Tech is on the North Side, a hefty mile west of Wrigley Field on West Addison Street. The afternoon sun baked the black composite track surface, and the air smelled mildly like tar as Page tossed her sunglasses up to Childress-Page. The gun sounded, and Page, 40, obliterated the field, winning in a Games-record 14.25 seconds. Page, a former combat medic who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, competed in a classification with other able-bodied entrants.

"That's my wife!" said a beaming Childress-Page, a 37-year-old sergeant in the Army. "I've got to go find her."

Two years ago, running anything would have seemed far-fetched to Page, fighting for her life thousands of miles away.

Deployed with Special Ops in Jordan in June 2015, Page fell into a cave behind a waterfall, breaking her left arm and dislocating her shoulder. No one saw her fall. No one knew where to find her. Though not particularly religious, Page had been baptized the week before in the Jordan River, where Christian tradition teaches that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Now she was alone, badly hurt, disoriented.

"There is no way they would have found me, even though they were looking for me, because I was right below their feet, with a current of water and a waterfall in between," said Page, sitting with her Special Ops teammates under a canopy next to the track. (Special Ops, which draws members from all branches of the service, has its own team at the Warrior Games.)

"I had a hard time seeing myself getting out of that cave, getting out of that hole," she said. "So when I was down there in the cave, I prayed to God. It was so dark in there, and I prayed to God for a sign. I got this millisecond ray of sunlight that shone through the cave in the direction that I came from. I didn't believe it. I just decided, let me go that way, and if I die going that way then at least I died trying to get out."

It took Page two hours to crawl out to safety. At the hospital, Page finally picked up her cellphone and found a text message from Dana. The text, and the time stamp, left her speechless.

"It was nothing but sunshines [emojis], at the exact moment while I was in the cave," she said. "I knew then and there, once I get home, she and I were getting married, and that was it. Had I not had her in my life at that time, I don't believe I would have made it out."

As Dana told it, "I was in airborne school at the time, and I had a feeling something was going on with her. I sent her a text with some sunshine [emojis] because for some reason, I thought she was having a hard day. I hadn't heard from her since the night before.

"We look back at the texts, and at that moment, while she was drowning in the waterfall, she saw a ray of sunshine, and she went for it. It was like we were connected." Then she paused, tears rolled down her freckled checks. "It was awesome," Dana said. "She said I saved her life that day."

Once Page returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, she had surgery at Duke University Medical Center to repair her shoulder. But that wasn't the only thing that needed repairing.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, as one of twin girls, Page was 29 when she quit as the director of women's basketball operations at Stanford University to enlist, spurred by images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

"Once I saw people being rescued from their houses in helicopters, I said that's what I wanted to do," she said.

She enlisted in April 2006, was assigned to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg that December and deployed on Jan.1, 2007, to Iraq for 15 months.

"I had a hard time dealing with some of the issues I had early on in my career," she said. "Being a combat medic in Iraq the first 15 months, my life was seeing lots of blood -- not just blood from our American soldiers but from Iraqi police officers, from Iraqi kids coming in to get assistance that they were otherwise unprovided for in their country. I had a tough time dealing with it. Even though we were in a medical unit, we didn't get a lot of debriefing.

"Then I had an Afghanistan deployment a year and a half later. I kind of served in the role of medical coverage. I was dealing with a lot with Afghani women, and I was the only woman dealing with all than. It took a little too much."

Back home, Dana watched Dawn struggle with PTSD. "She's very compartmentalized, so I had to learn how to deal with different moods," Dana said. "She'll have some PTSD memories. She won't say it, but you can tell, because her attitude will change. She'll get stuck in one spot.

"But she's the most resilient person I've ever met. She's always trying to keep herself busy and move forward and go forward and excel, make her body better, eat better."

Post-surgery, Page signed up for the Special Operations Command Warrior Care Program for her PTSD and physical issues. Dana eventually did, too. She wrecked both hips and her left shoulder training for Special Ops and is due for her own shoulder surgery this month. Dana aims to compete at next year's Warrior Games.

"It's funny," Page said. "The fight back in my struggle back was pretty difficult because I never felt I had anybody to talk to.

"I had my wife there, and she's super supportive. But at Fort Bragg, we're kindred spirits. It's the center of the military universe. Although we in SOCOM [Special Operations Command] provide so much for injured soldiers, it's still very difficult to feel like you're not the only one. I felt like I didn't have anyone to talk to. And that set me back physically. I got in kind of a downward spiral, not feeling like I'd ever get back to the fighting strength I was before."

In the adaptive sports program, Page found people she could relate to. "That was enough for me to get out," she said. "I understand their struggle. I'm not going to view myself through their struggle, but at least acknowledge that I had my own struggle to walk through and to be acknowledged. There's a goal in mind, and I know I'm not the only one. That's what helped me."

At her first Warrior Games, Page has taken on a lot -- track, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, shooting and cycling. Her shoulder still needs strengthening, but her legs are fine. Later on Sunday, Dawn added two more gold medals to her collection: the 200-meter (30.23 seconds) and the 400-meter (1:15.27). She ran with the small gold cross around her neck that Dana bought her when she returned from Jordan. "I found this special one with a sash," Dana said. "It was the only one that I thought was perfect for her -- not too big, not too small, not too gaudy."

And for Dawn, the perfect reminder of the ray of light that saved her life. "It still gives me goose bumps," she said.