Injured Soldier climbs Kilimanjaro to inspire others
May 31, 2012
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- It took 10 days, but Staff Sgt. Sandra Ambotaite topped the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and proved a point.
"The only disability you can have is a negative attitude," she said.
The 27-year-old medical regulation specialist joined eight others on "Mission Kilimanjaro" in January.
Spearheaded by Kyle Maynard, a quadruple amputee, the organization took a team of able-bodied and disabled civilians and veterans to climb Africa's tallest peak.
The goal -- to inspire others into understanding that any obstacle could be overcome.
Ambotaite's journey to Kilimanjaro meant overcoming her own medical obstacles.
Born in Lithuania, Ambotaite came to the United States at 17 years old. While working at Coney Island in Brooklyn, she passed an Army recruiting station every day. In 2003, Ambotaite said the recruiter's persistence paid off and she decided the Army would be a good way to improve her English and learn more about American culture.
"I loved it," she said. "My plan was to do 20 years. I loved the travel and the people and what I did."
Ambotaite became a U.S. citizen in 2005, just before deploying to Iraq. By her account, she'd found the place she felt she excelled, competing in Soldier of the Year competitions and pursuing activities that were "scary, fast or competitive."
A motorcycle accident changed it all.
Ambotaite broke her back in the wreck and doctors had to fuse her spine, leaving her wondering if she would ever walk again.
"I was in depression mode," she said. "I didn't want to get up. I didn't want to get off the couch. (I was) weak and helpless."
Eventually, the petite blonde decided she had to try. Through outreach programs she found at Fort Carson's Warrior Transition Battalion, she made contacts that eventually led her to Mission Kilimanjaro.
For about six months she trained by hiking 14-ers in Colorado and then found herself facing the 19,341 foot peak in Tanzania.
"The first two days I got really sick. I wondered, 'Will I make it?' If I was starting out this way, I wasn't sure I'd be able to continue," she said.
Ambotaite pushed on and felt things got better until the day before they reached the summit.
"Rather than take the easier route around, the team chose the hardest route. It meant moving straight up the mountain and there was no place to rest," she said.
Ambotaite said she only had to look around for inspiration.
"(I looked) at Kyle. He was crawling it. Not once did he complain," she said. "I had a team. It's not just me. Our team was doing it together. People from all over the world stopped by to see us on our ascent. They knew about us. It was motivating."
Finally, they reached the top.
"We carried the ashes of a Soldier who lost his life in Iraq," she said. "His mom asked (Maynard) to spread his ashes up top. It felt special. More special than just turning around and going down again. I had mixed feelings to be there -- some happy, some relieved. I felt like a part of the history of the mountain."
Ambotaite hoped the trip showed other veterans that obstacles, no matter what they are, can be overcome.
"To this day, I can't believe it happened. It's been almost three years since the accident and I went from, 'I can't do this' to what the Army trained us to do -- lead from the front."
Ambotaite is transitioning out of the Army and hopes to work for the Department of Homeland Security in Denver. Although she'd hoped to make the military her home, she said, "Everything happens for a reason."
She now has her eyes on mountain ranges in Russia and Argentina.