I Was Kidnapped by Somali Pirates and Almost Died Until 24 Navy Seals Saved Me
Jessica Buchanan's harrowing tale changed the trajectory of her life forever.
As a veteran, my husband is fascinated by TV shows and movies depicting military missions, especially those by elite teams like the Navy Seals or the Green Berets. You can typically find those streaming on our screens nightly after the kids go to bed. While many are based on true stories, they seem far from the reality of my quiet suburban life in Upstate New York. And if you think pirates only exist in kids' books and Disney movies, think again.
Let's just say I haven't personally encountered anyone who's been a member of these special forces or even interacted with them. The closest I'd come was consulting with the Army design team on a new tactical bra for female soldiers. That's until I saw the story of Jessica Buchanan on my local news.
After a two-minute package briefly detailed the humanitarian worker's kidnapping and subsequent rescue by Seal Team Six, I had to know more and reached out to schedule an interview. In 2011, then Washington, D.C.-based Buchanan, now 43, was kidnapped at gunpoint and held for ransom for 93 days while she was starved, terrorized, and abused by a band of Somali pirates. She shared her harrowing story in the 2014 New York Times bestselling book Impossible Odds.
To hear more from Buchanan directly, keep reading to learn her story and how it changed her life forever.
How it happened
The author and motivational speaker was in Somalia, working as an education advisor for an international humanitarian organization, raising awareness on how to avoid land mines. Knowing the dangers, she traveled to a "less-safe" part of the country for training. She even chillingly told her husband and fellow humanitarian worker, Erik, before she left that she hoped she wouldn't be kidnapped.
Erik was nervous for her to go. For some reason, this particular assignment left him feeling uneasy. Even though she was a pretty midwestern blonde, this had nothing to do with her looks. Her simply being there made her a target.
Buchanan's fears were warranted. There were 358 attacks by Somali pirates in the waters off Somalia between 2010 and 2015 alone. While she was traveling on land and not the water, the terrorists still posed a major threat.
Soon, her worst nightmare came to fruition—and Buchanan found her convoy surrounded by armed captors. The person they trusted to transport them to their next location worked with the terrorists.
"I was surrounded by up to 30 men armed with machine guns and AK-47s pointed at me. I didn't know if I would be shot, raped, sold, or set free at any moment," Buchanan recounts. "They would scream in my face, point their guns at my head, and threaten to sell me to Islamic extremists. It was the scariest and longest period of terror in my life."
The moment you know your life has changed forever
Buchanan shares that regardless of what happened from then on, as she was dragged out of the vehicle into captivity, she knew her life would be changed forever. "What was running through my head? That everything from this moment on will never be the same again."
The next few days were like something out of the plot of a major motion picture. Only Buchanan never signed up to be the star.
"We didn't know who had us or what they wanted with us or what they were going to do with us," she tells Best Life. "We were abused and terrorized constantly. It was all about just trying to stay alive."
Buchanan says she learned in training that if you managed to stay alive during the first 48 hours, you had a good chance of survival. "I kept my head down and did what they told me to. The first night was the most terrifying because they marched me out into the desert to what I believed would be my execution."
Turns out, the marching orders were so they could sleep. At that point, unbeknownst to Buchanan, her captors had no intention of killing her as they demanded $45 million in ransom.
Christmas in captivity
As the long terrifying days and nights as a hostage dragged on for more than three months (it's where she spent Christmas), miraculously, Buchanan says she never lost faith that she'd make it out alive—even as a painful urinary tract infection set in and caused her kidneys to start shutting down.
"I knew that if I allowed myself to feel despair, that was a hole I could never climb out of," she shares. "I just focused on making it home to my husband. Losing hope just wasn't an option for me."
As she wasted away in what can only be described as a slow death, Erik sat home in his own version of hell, never knowing when—or if—his wife would return home.
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The dramatic rescue
That day would eventually come. "It was like a scene from a movie," laments Buchanan. "There was a tremendous amount of gunfire as all nine men guarding me were killed. I heard an American voice say my name and identify themselves as military. I was in shock."
The elite special forces unit Seal Team Six (best known for killing Osama bin Laden) were the 24 men sent there by then-President Barack Obama to rescue her on that unforgettable day.
Life after the fallout
While Buchanan understandably suffers from anxiety and PTSD, more than a decade later, she's using her experiences to inspire others as a motivational speaker.
"I believe I got a second chance at life and do my best to use the gifts and opportunities I have been given to pay it forward," she explains. "I get up every morning hopeful that I will make a difference somewhere."
Jessica, now a mom, has been named one of the '150 Women Who Will Shake the World' by Newsweek, and her story has been one of the most highly viewed 60 Minutes episodes to date. She's appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and founded a publishing company where other women can share their stories to help and inspire others. She also actively supports The Navy Seal Foundation and Hostage U.S.
"I don't regret going there or the meaningful work I was doing," she tells us. "The lessons I have learned and the person I have become wouldn't have happened without it."