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The incredible life of Joe Woodard: 'Skydiving gave me my family back'

Posted at 10:22 PM, Jun 10, 2024

BILLINGS — By age six, Joe Woodard had shown signs of promise for being an exceptionally talented individual. A diving coach had informed his parents that he had the potential to become a gifted athlete — an Olympian.

"Next thing I know, I was at the Olympic trials at 13 years old — and (I was) standing across from Amy Grant, (and) Greg Louganis," said Woodard, who lives in Billings.

His diving journey was over sooner than it began, however, when Woodard hit his head on a diving board, receiving seven stitches.

"I tried," said Woodard, "and they said, no, that they weren’t going to let me compete.”

His unbelievable life stories did not stop there, according to Woodard and his partner, Leanne Laforge.

“I had to have him verify a lot of the stories of his life," said Laforge.

The day Woodard graduated from high school, he said his father gave him a three-option ultimatum between working in a local restaurant, going to college, or joining the military.

"I said, 'I guess we’re going to the recruiter’s station,'” said Woodard, who began as a Marine and transitioned to the Army for a 22-year service record.

Despite the fond memories with friends, he said his decorated dress blues symbolize chaos, war, and "things that, unfortunately, no man should have to do to another man.”

In 2016, like 35 of his veteran friends, Woodard had attempted to take his own life.

“I was at the end of my rope," said Woodard, "I had taken a gun and I had walked into the woods … and I was sitting there on this rock and I sat there for a few hours.”

Found by his friend, only identified as Phil, Woodard said he was stopped by a punch to the head, knocking him off the rock he was sitting on, and disarming him. The next day, Phil took him skydiving, something Woodard was familiar with from his military service.

“As I left that plane … I found peace, right in that moment," said Woodard, "When I landed, the grass was green again. The sky was blue. I could breathe.”

He soon began skydiving competitively, eventually becoming a part of the U.S. Parachute Team.

“It’s really been nice to see him come to (be) the man that I always knew was in there. It just needed a little onion peeling to get it out," said Laforge.

At his first national competition, he and his teammates placed third.

In 2022, Woodard experienced a parachute failure. Falling over 100 feet, he injured his spine, making it difficult for him to walk.

"Myself and four other people have had the same failure. I am the only one that’s alive to talk about it," said Woodard.

He gave up parachuting after his doctor informed him that if he were to have another improper landing, he may never walk again.

Though he loved and was a gifted skydiver, he said the most exciting thing is what lies ahead.

"Skydiving gave me my family back," said Woodard.

Woodard spends his days enjoying what he describes as a quieter life, building transmissions and ranching on the weekends in Montana.