On June 27, 2006, under a blinding midday sun, a convoy of U.S. Army vehicles rumbled out of Contingency Operating Base Rawa, in Iraq's Al Anbar province. The mission was to eradicate an insurgent cell that was operating out of a safe house on the banks of the Euphrates River.
Staff Sgt. Jacque (Jake) Keeslar was manning a 50-caliber machine gun from the gunner's hatch of a Stryker, an eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicle. He was 36 and had traveled a winding path to Iraq.
Growing up in the ski town of Big Bear Lake, Calif., Jake had been a self-described "screw-off," and he enlisted in the 82nd Airborne in 1990 because "I thought it would be cool to jump out of airplanes." The structured environment of the Army suited him. At 23 he got married and then welcomed a daughter, Joy. When the marriage fell apart, around the turn of the century, Jake relocated to the Northern Warfare Training Center at Fort Wainwright, near Fairbanks, Alaska. A skilled mountaineer, he taught enlistees cold-weather survival tactics and the art of telemark skiing. In the summer he instructed soldiers in rock climbing. Jake began wooing Vanessa Morrison, a ginger-haired beauty he had nursed a crush on for 15 years, going back to ninth grade. They married in 2002, and they were always dreaming about the future. Jake resolved to put in his 20 years in the Army, which would mean a nice pension. He never expected to go to war, but by '06 he was sleeping in a tent in the desert. Al Anbar was what Jake calls "the wild west of Iraq," a region in which teens were routinely paid $100 to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the roadways. Yet Jake felt he was doing meaningful work, training the Iraqi army and police force.
Naturally, the hardest part was being away from Vanessa. Yet even a world away and having to go an agonizing three weeks between phone calls, they felt connected. "We're not religious but we're very spiritual," says Jake. "Rolling through the desert, I always felt it didn't matter whether we turned right or left because my path was already determined. That freed me up to do my job because it took away the fear of death." A few hours before Jake's unit left for the raid on the safe house, he reached Vanessa by phone. She ended the call with her usual bit of advice: "Keep your head down." Recently, she added a rueful postscript: "I should have said, Keep your legs up."
Jake's Stryker was bouncing along a goat trail when it rolled over a pressure plate buried in the sand, triggering an IED. The explosion tore a three-foot hole in the metal floor of the vehicle. Jake was standing directly above the blast. His back was broken in five places, his pelvis shattered, his liver lacerated and his legs were, in his words, "pulverized." All he remembers is a flash of blinding light. When Jake came to, he knew he was badly hurt and feared the worst.
"Check my nuts," he told the medic.
When he got a thumbs-up, Jake closed his eyes and let the morphine wash over him. Four days later he awakened at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He had two stumps where his legs had been.
Vanessa is a steel magnolia who had worked as a 911 dispatcher. She was trained to be resolute in the face of crisis, but she admits to feeling overwhelmed at the sight of her maimed husband. "When Jake got hurt, it was as if our future was taken away," she says. "There was so much fear and uncertainty. What would his quality of life be like? If I have to take care of him, how will we pay the bills? Where will we live? For a long time we were living day to day, just trying to survive."
Jake refused to wallow in self-pity. Five weeks after he woke up in the hospital he completed a five-mile race on a hand-crank bicycle. Three months after that he cranked through the New York City Marathon. "I saw a lot of guys kind of wasting away in Walter Reed," he says. "That determination to go on -- you can't find that after you've been blown up. It has to already be inside of you."
Golf became a vital part of Jake's recovery. He had played casually with his father, Art, who learned the game during a stint in the Navy and counted himself as a member of Arnie's Army. Over the last two decades Art has switched his rooting allegiance to Phil Mickelson. "He has the same gung-ho, go-for-broke style as Arnie," says Art. "That's the way I've tried to live my life. Jake, too."
Within months of getting his new steel legs, Jake was on a golf course violently lashing at the ball. "It taught me how to move, how to keep my balance, how to navigate different terrain," Jake says. "It helped me reintegrate into society. Golf got me out of a dark place. It was a saving grace."
After 15 months at Walter Reed, Jake was determined to put in his 20 years, and he says he was only the second double-amputee to remain on active duty. He and Vanessa settled in Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, in housing that was heavily populated by young women whose husbands were overseas. Jake was the embodiment of their worst fears. "It was an awkward time," he says. "The wives were always nice to me, but I could see the pain in their eyes."
Seeking a refuge, he and Vanessa had put in an application with Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit that was founded in 2004 to provide specially adapted houses for injured veterans. From the beginning Mickelson has been a financial supporter and a spokesman. He is also a benefactor to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides college scholarships to the children of fallen special ops personnel. Mickelson coined the name Birdies for the Brave for his efforts to support the military. In '06 it became one of the PGA Tour's official charities, and to date more than $7 million has been raised for the eight military charities that benefit from the endeavor. In November, Mickelson will host a two-day fund-raiser at TPC Sawgrass. His ambitious target is to raise $10 million for Birdies for the Brave. "It's pretty cool that, one way or another, my dad's favorite golfer helped build my house," Jake says.
The Keeslars chose a one-and-half-acre plot outside Fallbrook, Calif., about 45 minutes northeast of Camp Pendleton. Last November -- nine months after Jake fulfilled his 20 years and walked away from the Army -- they moved into a beautiful home with dark hardwood floors and a state-of-the-art chef's kitchen. Among the house's many adaptations are wider doorways, lower countertops and cutouts beneath the sink and stove to allow him to roll right up. The master bathroom has a huge wheelchair-accessible shower and the world's coolest toilet. The big common rooms and expansive backyard have made the Keeslars' house the default spot for all family gatherings, saving Jake the difficulties of navigating other homes that are ill-equipped for his needs. (There is also an extra bedroom for visits from Joy, 15, who lives with her mom in Ohio.)
"This is our forever house," says Vanessa. "We've been dreaming about it for a long time. But this exceeds our dreams. It feels like a miracle."
Every house built by Homes for Our Troops is given free of charge. "So instead of sweating a mortgage I can play more golf!" Jake says. His handicap is down to 16.8, and last year he holed a five-iron shot from 185 yards for his first eagle. Jake acquitted himself nicely playing in the pro-am at the 2012 Northern Trust Open, which was merely the latest adventure in an action-packed life. Through a veterans' organization called Project Healing Waters he has fly-fished in Canada, Chile and Belize. He won a silver medal in wheelchair basketball at the first Warrior Games in 2010. Jake likes to roar through the hills in his neighborhood on a customized chopper, and he can still tear up a mountain on his monoski.
"Jake getting hurt forced both of us to do a lot of soul work, a lot of spirit work," says Vanessa. "It's turned him into a beautiful, compassionate person."
Jake and Vanessa have often ruminated on life's larger meaning since he was "blown up," to use his preferred phrase. These days the conversations usually take place when they're relaxing in their new backyard, palm trees swaying overhead, Palomar Mountain visible in the distance. There is a soothing trickle from the multitiered swimming pool they recently put in with a chunk of their life savings. The house that Mickelson helped fund has become a sanctuary. Jake and Vanessa have a favorite expression reserved for these tranquil moments, when the blast of a roadside bomb feels very far away: "This does not suck."
New Orleans is more than a city, it's an idea. Helen Gillet arrived 10 years ago, at 23, with only her cello and the romantic notion that the Big Easy would be a beautiful place to struggle as an artist. "New Orleans represented so many things to me: music, culture, freedom," she says. Helen didn't know a soul, but she had her talent and ambition and an instrument she had always leaned on.
She was born to an American mother in Belgium, her father's homeland. He was a successful banker, and Helen led what she calls a "very, very privileged childhood." She took up the cello at nine, while living in Singapore and attending a French-language school carved out of the jungle. When she was 12 her father fell ill, and the family fell on hard times. Her parents divorced, and Helen moved with her mom and brother to Libertyville, Ill. They were suddenly living hand-to-mouth in the conservative Chicago suburb, and the culture shock was jarring. "The cello was my escape," she says. "It was my foundation."
After graduating from Beloit College in Wisconsin, she couldn't resist the siren song of New Orleans. She instantly felt at home -- the air was alive with French, her native tongue, and the steamy climate reminded her of Singapore. Helen papered the city with flyers advertising her musical talents. She took any gig she could find, sometimes making as little as six bucks in tips. She survived thanks to the bulk foods gifted by her aunt, who worked for a company that supplied prisons. When she booked a wedding for the princely fee of $50, she celebrated with a salad and an avocado that she says "was better than the finest caviar." She lived in unusual conditions, including an "artist's colony" that was basically 20 kids squatting in a warehouse.
"I was barely making enough money to get by, but New Orleans was really good to me," she says. "It was so inspiring to be surrounded by the endless creativity and wealth of talent. It's such an open musical community; if you're willing to make a fool of yourself, you can sit in with any band in town." She learned to blend her classical training with elements of jazz, the blues and even punk rock.
In the summer of 2005 Helen made the long drive to Quebec to visit family, bringing along her cello and her cat, Lilly (named for Hurricane Lili, which they lived through a few months after arriving in New Orleans). While she was 1,500 miles away another hurricane hit. "Watching the Katrina coverage on TV, the emotions were so powerful," she says. "That was my city."
It took her three months to make it home. Even then she was among the small number of women living in a city populated by cops, soldiers and construction workers. The 6 p.m. curfew was still in effect, so Helen and two other female musicians spent their days playing on the streets of the French Quarter, bringing a little beauty back to New Orleans. "Best tips I ever made," she says with a laugh.
She was holed up in a foul-smelling apartment when she spied a flyer for a subsidized community that was sprouting in the Upper Ninth Ward. It was called Musicians' Village, and the 72 houses were reserved for working artists. Two of them were being built with money donated by Phil Mickelson. In the days after Katrina he had contributed $250,000 to relief efforts and pledged all of his winnings from the 2006 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, which inspired a number of players to do the same. Mickelson was disappointed to finish 15th and earn "only" $81,720, so he rounded the number to a quarter mil. (He would contribute another $250,000 in 2007.) The day after the '06 tournament, Phil and Amy spent nine hours examining Katrina's impact. "They wanted to see the damage and understand how they could help," says Tommy Fonseca, a tournament staffer who drove the Mickeslons around town. "They were deeply moved. I remember Amy breaking down three or four times."
Helen was similarly overwhelmed when the walls were raised on her house. "I had moved so many times since I got here, it was incredibly meaningful to have my first home," she says. As a down payment she had to put in 350 hours of sweat equity building her house and others in the neighborhood. She would often bring her cello to the job sites and play during breaks, to the accompaniment of the pounding of nails.
In November 2007 she moved into her 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom house. The bamboo floors provide great acoustics, and in lieu of living room furniture she imported her grandmother's baby grand piano. Among the neighborhood perks are a weekend drum circle and enough working artists that the block put out a compilation CD titled Musicians' Village. One of Helen's neighbors is New Orleans legend Smokey Johnson, who spent two decades as the drummer for Fats Domino. Johnson, 75, tools up and down the street in his wheelchair, always greeting Helen with "Hello, cello" and sending her off to gigs with, "Go get 'em, Killer."
Her $75,000 mortgage is interest-free over 20 years, and with such inexpensive housing she was finally free to take fewer late-night gigs and move on to another challenge. "I had always dreamed of recording albums, but it was this little house that gave me the freedom to do it," she says.
Her first album came out in 2009 as part of the quartet Wazozo; Newton Circus features covers of Paris bistro music with a zydeco twist, with Helen providing lovely vocals in French. In 2011, along with Doug Garrison and Tim Green, she released Running of the Bells, an awesomely eclectic album on which she played the cello, loop, octave distortion and vielle, a medieval fiddle. On April 23, at the Big Easy Music Awards, the album was honored under the all-encompassing category of Best Contemporary Jazz. Helen just finished recording an album of original compositions, with her evocative cello work complemented by electronic music and other pop elements. She sings in English and French. Still untitled, the album is set to be released in June. (Go to helengillet.com for details.)
Even as she's on the verge of more mainstream success, Helen is forever seeking out new challenges. Last week, in one of her 12 gigs during Jazz Fest Season, Helen Gillet's Wazozo Zorchestra, a seven-piece band, performed the sound track to Belgian avant-garde silent films from the 1930s, what counts as just another day at the office. "She's a dream to play for because she has such interesting ideas," says Wazozo tuba player Jon Gross. "I feel rejuvenated playing with Helen because she's such a positive life force."
"She has that classic New Orleans improv spirit," says Gregory Good, Wazozo's guitarist. "Anything goes, and that makes the music come alive." He pays Helen the ultimate compliment, the kind of validation that has sustained her during a topsy-turvy decade in a city she has made her own: "She's a true artist."