Amputee veterans stand up to Mount Kilimanjaro and achieve peak condition

Several American military veterans accepted the Warfighter Sports Challenge and event organized by Disabled Sports USA that pits climbers against Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

When U.S. Army Sgt. Neil Duncan got taken apart in the highlands of Afghanistan in 2005 -- his vehicle ran over a buried explosive and it "blew up right under me" -- he really wasn't picturing life without his legs.

Five years later, the double amputee is calling from a hotel in Arusha, Tanzania. His arms ache; so do his stumps.

He and two other former soldiers, three men with one leg between them, have just come down from summiting 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. You read correctly: Three soldiers, one leg. Mountain climb.

"I'm just incredibly sore all over," Duncan says. "I tried this last year and just didn't make it. . . . I learned that if you take a bunch of amputees and you want to put them on top of a mountain, there are a lot of things you need to think about."

The trio of Duncan (a 26-year-old Minnesotan, now in college in Colorado) and former Army sergeants Dan Nevins (39, lost both legs in Iraq, native of California) and Kirk Bauer (62, lost one leg in Vietnam, lives in Ellicott City) made their six-day ascent as part of the Warfighter Sports Challenge, a series of seven extreme events for permanently disabled veterans.

It includes participation in races such as a 26-mile desert run, a 100-mile bike ride and a 90-mile team event that features downhill skiing, kayaking and mountain biking. It's run by Disabled Sports USA, a Rockville-based nonprofit that offers sports-as-therapy programs for soldiers and civilians across the country.

The Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project began in 2003, focused on permanently disabled veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Participation in the program -- which uses donations to pay for all fees, travel and equipment for veterans -- is limited to soldiers who have lost limbs or eyesight, or suffered serious brain and spinal cord injuries. More than 3,000 have taken part so far. The Warfighter event began this year, with extreme sports events such as the Kilimanjaro climb.

"Sports is the tool to rebuild their confidence after they've been banged up and blown up," says Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports and overseer of the Warfighter series. "We put together this team with veterans from three different wars and two generations to show the potential of wounded warriors."

The group made the Kilimanjaro trek with a guide who had experience helping disabled climbers. Kilimanjaro, though towering above the clouds, is not a technical peak, meaning it can be climbed by walking and scrambling over rocks and boulders. The group summited early Saturday morning, though it was grueling.

Bauer's computerized prosthetic leg, which automatically adjusts for differing terrains, "froze up" above 15,000 feet, he says, forcing him to make the rest of climb using it as a peg leg. On the way down, he switched to his backup, low-tech prosthetic leg; attached with suction, it kept falling off "and I'd do a little pirouette and look for a soft rock to land on."

Duncan, using two prosthetic legs, had to get down on all fours to traverse some of the rocky stretches at altitude. Nevins developed high-altitude sickness after reaching the peak and had to be rushed down the mountain on a stretcher.

"The climb beat the hell out of our prosthetics," Bauer said. "But what we've found is that these events, these challenges, really get these guys motivated."

Ivan Castro, a 43-year-old Army captain, knows that firsthand. Grievously injured and blinded by a mortar round in Afghanistan in 2006, he was lying in a bed at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda when he heard nurses talking about running the Marine Corps Marathon.

"The only thing I knew about the blind," says Castro, now a recruiter stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., "was that they walked with a cane. Or a dog. I didn't know the blind could run." He began his rehabilitation "working with one-pound dumbbells."

Castro has gone on to participate in several Warfighter events, as well as running marathons. This spring, he ran in the Warfighters group in the annual Battaan Memorial Death March, featuring a 26-mile course over rocks, sand and broken terrain in New Mexico. He runs by holding a shoelace in one hand while a guide runs beside him, holding the other end of the lace and describing the terrain.

"The Warfighter program has got the extreme stuff and I like it," he says. "They let us go out there and tear it up like everyone else."

Duncan, speaking from Arusha: "After not getting to the peak last year, I really didn't want to leave that out there, that I didn't get to the peak. " Until just after dawn, Saturday.

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