JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- A group of wounded warriors have taken their recovery to a whole new level -- more than 19,000 feet above the sea.
The team last month ascended East Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
The self-proclaimed Kilimanjaro Warriors battled through prosthetic, orthosis and crutch repairs, blisters and bruises, torrential downpours and a blinding blizzard during their challenging, seven-day journey to the peak.
"It was incredibly hard, but well worth it," said Mark Heniser, a physical therapist from the Center from the Intrepid who joined the warriors on the climb. "We just felt pure elation when we hit the top."
Along with Heniser, the team included six former CFI patients, two spouses, a videographer and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Connolly, the organizer of the climb.
Connolly, a former F-16 and A-10 pilot, had a long-standing desire to aid and inspire wounded warriors. While in Desert Storm, he saw an Iraqi with his leg shot off and wondered how he'd cope in the future -- a concern that turned to U.S. service members facing the same challenges here.
In 2011, on the 20th anniversary of Desert Storm, Connelly decided a climb would be a "monumental goal to help recovery."
As the American Airlines pilot worked to raise funds, he enlisted the help of Heniser to build a team of motivated warriors.
Building the Team
Heniser said he contacted former patients who had demonstrated a commitment to their rehabilitation, and would show that same dedication to this mission. He gathered a team of six veterans -- one Soldier, two Marines -- a National Guard Soldier, an active duty Air Force officer and a Defense Department contract civilian -- all either single or bilateral amputees.
Heniser said he had no doubt they'd do well. As the oldest member of the team, "I was more worried about whether I could make the climb than I was about everyone else making it," he said with a laugh.
Situated in different cities, each mostly trained alone for more than 15 months, working out in gyms and hiking in local parks, often with 30-pound packs on their backs. After a few team training missions in Texas and Arizona, the team met up one final time in North Carolina for a cold-weather hiking trip.
It was in training that Air Force Capt. Sarah Evans decided she'd make the long climb on crutches rather than with her prosthetic leg. After a diagnosis of Stage 3 bone cancer two years ago, Evans had undergone a hemipelvectomy, which took half of her pelvis and leg. An amputation, she noted, was the best chance of a long-term survival.
While she has mastered her prosthesis, she didn't feel the bulky leg was conducive to the mountainous terrain. "It was too heavy for the climb," said Evans, who is with the 59th Patient Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. "I didn't want it to hold me, or anyone else, back."
Instead, she obtained a set of forearm crutches with attachments for every type of terrain and set her sights on the summit.
"The past couple of years had been really tough physically and emotionally," she said. "I wanted this adventure to symbolize how far I've come."
The team flew to Tanzania in early February and spent the first six days hiking to base camp, buying them time to acclimate to the altitude and rough terrain.
"When we first got there, it started to rain horribly. We were all soaked and miserable," Evans said. "I didn't want to turn back, but knew this was going to be much harder than I expected -- and I expected it to be hard."
The team arrived at the base of the summit on the sixth day and prepped for the haul to the top. At 10:30 p.m., they set out with a goal of summiting the next morning.
About a half an hour into the walk, a blizzard hit, Heniser recalled. "It was the worst storm I've ever seen," he said. "You could barely see and at that altitude, it was hard to breathe."
Oklahoma Army National Guard Sgt. Kisha Makerney struggled to hike through the storm on her prosthetic leg as she fought a cold and altitude sickness, which resembles a bad case of the flu.
"I fell down at least 20 times," said Makerney, who lost her leg below-the-knee in a motorcycle accident. "I was weak and fighting like crazy, but I never thought about quitting. I was determined to keep going, to reach the summit."
Evans hiked for hours on end on her crutches. "It was freezing; I was wet and out of it," she said. "It was tough."
Struggling for breath and battling through 50 mph winds, the team finally reached the summit -- 19,340 feet above sea level -- at 6:30 a.m. on the seventh day.
Just as they spotted the wooden summit sign, the storm broke and they saw breathtaking views of snow-capped peaks and drifting clouds.
"I felt elated, overjoyed," Heniser said. "We were jumping for joy and hugging. It was a feeling of a mission accomplished."
That moment was almost indescribable, Connolly said. "Everyone dug deep to get to that summit. Just getting myself to the top was a huge accomplishment, but being surrounded by the others who made it, it was very emotional for me."
The team took a few pictures then headed back down the mountain -- a 14-hour downhill climb on slippery, unstable terrain.
For amputees, a descent is much harder than an uphill climb, Heniser noted. "It was so muddy, it was like chocolate milk running down a road," he said. "Everyone was slipping and falling."
The next day, their journey ended as they walked out of the gate and into a waiting vehicle. For many of the team, the scope of their achievement is just now setting in.
"I wasn't even sure I had a future two years ago," Evans said. "Going from being at that low point to accomplishing something so huge … it's amazing."
Climbing Kilimanjaro "was one of the hardest things I've ever done," said Makerney, who had deployed twice to Iraq -- once as an amputee. "But I wanted to let the world know that through God, anything is possible. If I can do it, anyone can."
The team set an inspiring example for others, Heniser noted. "Our wounded veterans are taking what they did in rehab and are continuing to challenge themselves, which is extremely encouraging to see," he said. "They truly can flourish and thrive throughout the rest of their lives."
While the climb was a huge achievement, Connolly said he's even prouder of the positive message this trip will send. "I hope this inspires and motivates other people," he said. "Everyone has struggles; life is about how you rise to the occasion.
"And these guys rose to the occasion."