|Amputee Soldiers Rally and Summit Mt. Kilimanjaro|
|By KAMI DIMITROVA (@kami0tweets)||Feb 27, 2014, 7:23 PM|
For six wounded soldiers, scaling the tallest mountain in Africa wasn't just an adventure of a lifetime, it was a testament to their true grit.
They call themselves the Kilimanjaro Warriors.
Lt. Col. Steve Connolly, a former Air Force pilot who served in Iraq, decided to launch the mission last year after raising $100,000 from sponsors including American Airlines. He said he developed a passion for helping wounded soldiers after witnessing an amputation during a battle in Desert Storm.
"That festered in my mind for years, wondering what life was like for our soldiers that came back from war as amputees," he said. "I started coming up with the idea of a mountain climb as a monumental goal for their recovery."
He chose Mt. Kilimanjaro after learning it was a strenuous, but feasible hike for amputees. He refers to his team of climbers, including five able-bodied wingmen, as a "military unit," which he assembled from a variety of organizations geared towards helping wounded soldiers.
"Some of them were suffering with PTSD, so having one last small military mission that was treated just like you do when you go out gave them the target to shoot for," Connolly said. "That's what everyone wants, a goal."
The unit would train for one year before setting off for Tanzania this month.
Part of the training included hikes to test the durability of prosthetics in harsh weather and high altitudes. In January, the group went to North Carolina and hiked along hills in below freezing temperatures.
"Kisha has a battery in her leg, so we needed to see how that would hold up," Connolly said about one of the climbers.
Some of the amputees suffered injuries from IED explosions in the Middle East, others from cancer or off-duty accidents. One of the members who joined could barely even run.
Sgt. Kisha Makerney, 28, was one of the wounded climbers and vows to be the first female to ever rejoin the Army as an amputee. She lost her leg in a motorcycle accident after she returned from a deployment to Iraq in 2004.
She was riding the bike when a tire blew out and caused her to lose control and run into a sign, she said. The sign cut off her leg immediately and flung her into the woods.
"My leg was still attached a little bit," she said. "But no one could see me down there, so I had to low-crawl up to the street. By that time my leg got too dirty to be saved."
Steve Martin, 44, a former military policeman, was also one of the climbers and a double below-the-knee amputee. He was riding a hummer in Afghanistan in 2008 with three other soldiers when an IED hit the car and broke his hips, one arm, and nearly all of his ribs.
That's also the moment he lost both of his legs.
He tried to save his legs for a year and a half until advice from the doctor and unending pain convinced him to amputate, he said.
"Just because the war is ending, doesn't mean our pain and scars are gone," Martin said. "But we still want to be part of society and part of our communities. I had to take a chance in life and get my mobility back and get rid of the pain."
Since then, he has completed sixteen half-marathons and three full marathons. It's his way of staying off the couch, he said.
The hike up the 20,000-foot mountain lasted all of eight days, seven of which were solely dedicated to the climb up.
Makerney said the hardest part of the hike was summit day, when the unit embarked on an eight-hour climb during one of the coldest and stormiest nights.
"I couldn't breathe. I would fall down because I couldn't get enough air. I would lose consciousness and fall onto the ground," she said. "But I got up and kept going. I overcame being sick and made it to the top, even when you can't see anything and you don't know when the top is gonna come."
When the group finally reached the summit and were greeted with a sign that read "Welcome to Uhuru Peak," Martin said he was hit with a wave of emotion.
"When I saw the sign at the summit the first thing I did was cry. I was there. You can't go any higher," he said. "Sometimes you didn't even have to say anything at all. Just a little fist-bump."
By the end of the trip, Martin had dislocated the same shoulder twice due to falls, and the skin touching his prosthetics had completely rubbed off, he said. But he said those weren't reasons to quit.
"I can't think of anything in my life that hurt so bad," he said. "But the climb is not complete until I go down. You are dealing with a group of people who have gone through a lot. And I didn't want to quit."
The group safely returned to their homes in Texas and Arizona on Saturday.
Makerney is currently in the Oklahoma Army Guard and learning how to be a pilot. After she graduates from college, she said he hopes to fly for emergency response teams for Homeland Security.
"I wouldn't take my leg back for anything," she said. "It's an amazing feeling to be at the lowest of lows, have everything taken from you and then take it all back," Makerney said.
"I want people to know that no matter what happens ... you're not alone. And people are really ready to fight for you," Makerney said of her fellow veterans. The climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro "was my fight for them. I wanted to show them that anything is possible."
Martin is already looking forward to the next marathon, which he will run alongside his father and son.
"It sucks being an amputee, don't get me wrong. It's horrible," he said. "But at the same time, I'm still here. I'm still me."
A videographer who traveled with the group, Bevan Bell, will soon be releasing a documentary on the trip.