November 11, 2013
A couple weeks ago, I returned from our third Soldiers to Summits expedition high in the Peruvian Andes, with 15 veterans, all with either physical injuries or mental and psychological trauma. I met the team back in August at the No Barriers Summit during their first training session. I got acquainted with Aaron Hale, blind for less than two years. Aaron was leading an Army bomb squad when an IED exploded in his face. It took out his eyes, blew out his eardrums, took away his sense of smell and fractured his cranium and face bones. With the support of his wife and kids, Aaron fought his way back. His life philosophy: “to stop moving is to stop living.” Marine Ryan Garza also made a big impression on me. He was leading sweep teams through four battlefield deployments and was blown up several times before the big one, which shattered his foot into 80 pieces. Doctors said he’d never walk, let alone climb a mountain. However after many surgeries, Ryan felt he was ready to join S2S and push himself to the next step of his life.
The team first headed up to the rural Quechua nation of Q’eros for some service work and cultural exchange where they learned ancient Inca mathematic techniques, and in turn taught basic first aid skills. The team carried heavy rocks to build a cui pen for the locals (Cui is guinea pig, a staple in the Quechua diet.) They also brought and assembled a solar panel for a new school being built and helped paint the structure.
A couple members on the team told me that looking around the village and the indigenous people, it looked remarkably similar to their experience in Afghanistan. One even said he found himself reaching for his firearm as a programmed response and being nervous when it wasn’t there. It made me realize that for many of these men and women, it was the first time they were out of the U.S. without being in a life-threatening situation. How positive was it that this new experience could be a part of rewiring the brain and teaching our team that the world can be a friendly inviting place, full of adventure, instead of danger.
Afterwards, the team trekked forty miles over the week through the Cordillera Vilcanota, past remote llama and alpaca hearding communities. Vilcanota circumnavigates Apu Ausangate, a massive snowy peak with giant hanging seracs and deep crevasses crisscrossing the glacier, as well as being the most important deity for the Quechua people. Throughout, the weather was cold with spells of torrential rain and hail, and many were suffering from altitude sickness. People were pretty exhausted at the end of each long day, and were forced to draw upon their inner strength to keep positive. In the face of those hardships, on a very snowy day and after a long climb, we reached the top of Mariposa, and our four rope teams stood on a tiny mound of space at almost 18,000 feet.
Aaron struggled up to the summit a moment behind me, exhausted but satisfied. He said he started the day feeling low and thought about quitting in the first grueling hour. But his teammates and guides told him to “suck it up.” Being a warrior, Aaron rose to the challenge and kept trudging. I was so impressed by everyone on the team who took turns guiding him throughout, seamlessly stepping in to replace each other with zero prompting, and calling directions for hour after exhausting hour. Ryan Garza came up soon after Aaron, with the encouragement of his rope team and help from his special leg brace and high-tech mountain crutches.
At the summit, Army veteran Pedro Sotelo pulled a very large American Flag from his relatively small pack. Seeing this happen, a couple team members started laughing, and someone said, “I can’t believe you brought that all the way up here.” I’ve found that soldiers are constantly busting on each other and joking around in the face of arduous situations, but not this time. Without hesitation, Pedro shot back, “A lot of good people died for this flag. That’s why I’m here – to honor them and to keep pushing forward.”
As we stood with the giant American flag raised and the tiny No Barriers flag overlaid on top, I reflected on all the struggles we face as human beings, and all the ways we try to push forward. I think No Barriers starts with a belief that every human being has the potential to climb, and that by tapping into the human spirit we can equip ourselves with the toolkit to live a purposeful life.
After the summit we debriefed in the hut, and one veteran opened up and told us, before S2S, he was dangerously close to suicide, but applied, figuring he had nothing to lose. He said he was so glad he did and that he now had a family again to watch his back and to draw strength from. He ended by saying that he now had more hope and confidence that he could lead and serve again.
As I get older, I realize that the pattern of progress perfectly mimics a climb – two steps upward - one slide back. We struggle to take on our demons, to embrace a new life after catastrophic changes, to build something great, or to find purpose in our lives. Daily obstacles wear us down and knock us back, and there are moments we feel we’ve gone backwards and lost our traction. But like Pedro, we keep pushing forward anyway. And if we are true to our extended journey, we also experience those moments of breakthrough, of transformation, and we realize our summits are within our reach.
Thank you to all of you who have supported our Soldiers to Summits team, and on this important holiday, I want to thank those who have served our nation bravely. Veterans Day teaches us all about the kind of men and women who are the truest sense of what we all aspire to be, pioneering, resilient, and persistent in our drive to move forward.
We honor veterans because we know the weight they carry is heavy, and the weight of that flag should be carried by us all, not just by a few.
And last, thanks to my dad, Ed, a Marine, who has inspired me my whole life. Semper fi!
See a powerful video clip that summarizes the expedition and the No Barriers mindset.