MISSION FIRST: When Tragedy Strikes

Dec. 17, 2013

by Mady Salvani

In April 1994, Jen (Johnston) McAfee and her best friend, Darlene Dondero, were juniors at the United States Military Academy and members of the Army softball team. Both were looking forward to home-cooked meals Easter weekend with a few of their teammates at Dondero's home in Ringwood, N.J.

The two were upperclassmen at West Point, enjoying some of the privileges that come with the added responsibilities and leadership roles they held within the United States Corps of Cadets and as members of the Army softball team.

Unfortunately life has a way of throwing a curve ball at times. Easter weekend started off on a joyous note for McAfee and Dondero, but ended tragically.

On Good Friday, Dondero's mother, Marilyn, and father, Bob, drove to West Point's Central Area to pick up the entire softball team for a brief respite from the barracks with dinner at their home and an overnight stay. Saturday morning, after a hearty breakfast, they made the 45-minute return trek to West Point for a doubleheader at Buffalo Soldier Field against Lehigh.

McAfee was the starting shortstop and Dondero was a member of the pitching staff. That doubleheader would be the last time Dondero would step onto Army's softball field. It would be several months before McAfee ever returned to the diamond.

Seven players made the return trip to the Dondero's home Saturday to join Darlene's family for Easter dinner on Sunday. The Donderos got the crew up early the next morning for Sunrise Service at the Wanaque Reservoir followed by an Easter egg hunt and a full course dinner augmented by members of the Dondero family, to include Darlene's grandmother, aunt, and cousins.

Just a few hours later on Route 293, a major passageway between West Point and the New York State Thruway, Darlene was fatally injured when the car in which she was riding struck a tree.

"Darlene's dad had three to four players in his car in front of us, and I was with Darlene and her mother," reflects McAfee, who originally was in the front seat, but ultimately deferred the spot to her friend.

"I don't remember anything other than they had to use the Jaws of Life to get Darlene out of the car."

McAfee was asleep in the back seat and suffered extensive injures after going through the rear window on the passenger side. Those injuries required a plate to be inserted into her left arm, screws in her right hand and a rod in her leg. She also sustained a head injury.

"I went halfway out of the window and did all the damage to myself when I raised my arms," explains McAfee. "That is how I broke my left arm and right hand, and my right leg was pinned under Darlene's feet with my left leg hanging out.

"I was first taken to West Point's Keller Army Community Hospital, and then transferred to the Westchester Trauma Center where my parents met me that night after flying in from Arizona. I didn't know about Darlene until I woke up in the ICU at Keller."

The first decision that McAfee made after being told that Darlene did not survive the crash was to announce she planned to go to her funeral at the Cadet Chapel.

The doctors at Keller Army Community Hospital refused her request, but orthopedic surgeon Dr. John Uhorchak sided with McAfee, knowing how important it was for her to be there. Despite her limited mobility, McAfee attended the funeral and gravesite service of her best friend at the West Point Cemetery on a hospital bed.

It was a long road back to recovery, aggravated further when McAfee was told shortly after the accident she would just have to sign some paperwork to get out of the Army and West Point. That was not an option that she had any desire to consider. Instead it just made her more resolute about remaining a member of the Corps.

"I told them, `I don't plan on quitting,'" remembers McAfee. "I came to West Point to become an officer and I planned to finish and serve. I asked them, `What is Option B?' They said I could be a December graduate. Again I said, `No,' and asked, `What about Plan C?'

"That option had my professors coming to the hospital where I did my studies and took my WPRs (written partial reviews). About a month later, Dr. Uhorchak allowed me to go to classes, but I lived in the hospital until the end of the school year."

While McAfee was recuperating in the hospital, her teammates wore a patch with the No. 17 on their uniforms to honor Dondero the next two seasons.

"The 1994 season started off with high hopes and great expectations," recalls Jim Flowers, who coached Army from 1991 to 2009. "We took the week off after the accident and used it for team bonding and taking care of all those things when you have a crisis."

While McAfee's teammates returned to Buffalo Soldier Field after the accident, she did not step onto the playing field until the fall of her senior year after spending the summer at Fort Bragg, N.C., participating in Cadet Troop Leadership Training. She took that first step with her teammates, but still missed having her best friend by her side.

"It was sad," says McAfee with a lump in her throat. "We all missed her, and I felt like I had a hole in my heart. Coach Flowers was solemn, but he handled it well. We all played for Darlene and everyone picked each other up."

It was a frustrating time for McAfee, who still was not 100 percent due to the steel rod that had been placed in her leg and limited her lateral motion and ability to run. Flowers knew how important it was to keep his senior co-captain in the lineup, and she split time at second base and at designated player. She batted .500 at the Patriot League Tournament that season and closed out the year as Army's runs batted in leader with 14.

"What Jen had to overcome and what she did to lead by example was inspirational," explains Flowers. "What everyone took away from that accident because of what we experienced was that softball was just a game and that life was so much more important ... being together, doing things together and enjoying things together."

Next stop for McAfee was graduation and those four years came rushing back with memories of her "Plebe" summer in 1991 when she became instant friends with Darlene. They helped each other through a challenging "Plebe" year; spent their first two years in the same regiment; and roomed together on softball road trips.

"It is hard to stay close to your friends across the years," notes McAfee. "If the circumstances were different, I know that I would still be close with `Dar' today. We used to talk all the time. When I would be home on leave in Arizona and she was at home in New Jersey, we called each other up. One time I forgot about the time difference and called her in the middle of the night."

A few months after picking up her bachelor of science degree in Spanish and Portuguese, the newly commissioned Military Intelligence Officer at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz., returned to the Northeast for a special appearance in Cape Cod, Mass. McAfee was presented with the Eastern College Athletic Conference Award of Valor, which is presented to an athlete "whose courage, motivation and relentless determination serves as an inspiration to all." "I felt several others could have received that award," recalls McAfee. "I was able to keep driving on with the support of my family and friends, my teammates and Darlene's parents. It was sad, though, because it brought back memories. I know Darlene would have been a wonderful leader because she cared a lot about people.

"I think things happen for a reason. It helped make me a strong and compassionate leader. I feel you have to understand what your troops are going through and know their situations. That came to my own attention during my first assignment when my company commander could not understand why I was barely passing the Physical Training run. I didn't tell him about the rod in my leg because I didn't want to make excuses. When he found out, he was apologetic, but you can't make an opinion of people until you realize the `whole person' concept. "

Leadership was in McAfee's blood and her military career took off. It has been an exciting and enjoyable journey as she heads into her 19th year in the Army. In between assignments that included a tour in Hawai'i and another in the war zone of Iraq, McAfee was able to take a few more swings with the bat. She was a member of the All-Army women's softball team that won the gold medal in 2004 after defeating Air Force, Navy and the Marines. That led to an invite to the All-Armed Forces Team and the opportunity to play in the National Tournament in Oklahoma City where she posted the team's highest batting average (.412).

"I love being in the Army and I love being with the soldiers. I will stay as long I can make a difference and help soldiers be successful."

McAfee, who was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 2011, took command of the Phoenix Recruiting Battalion in July 2012, consisting of six companies, 30 recruiting stations, 29 Department of the Army civilian workers and 330 soldiers throughout Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas and Nevada covering 250,000 square miles.

Tragedy affects people in various ways. The loss of Jen McAfee's best friend helped make her a strong and compassionate officer who leads by example. That is just what she has done every day since that horrible Easter weekend two decades ago.

Check back tomorrow for MISSION FIRST: The Hockey Life Of Riley.

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