For wounded Afghanistan vet, Everest is his goal, happiness is his choice
By KATHERINE JONES | The Idaho Statesman | Published: January 25, 2016
BOISE, Idaho (Tribune News Service) — Charlie Linville actually hasn’t climbed Mount Everest. Although it’s not for lack of trying.
He has climbed Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, plus three of the four tallest volcanoes in Ecuador and the tallest peak in Mexico — all of which were training for Everest.
But Everest itself ...
He has been to Base Camp twice. The first time was in 2014. After rigorous training in South America and climbing a 22,000-foot peak in Nepal multiple times to acclimatize, Charlie and his crew — Tim Medvetz from The Heroes Project and their Sherpas — arrived at Everest Base Camp. They were a mere 24 hours from starting their climb to Camp 2 when an avalanche roared through the Khumbu Icefall, which separates Base Camp from Camp 2. Sixteen Nepalese guides were killed and the mountain was closed to further climbs.
He says: “I’m not naive to the dangers of high altitude climbing. ... I’ve climbed mountains and I’ve seen some bad things happen.
“It’s kind of like being on a deployment. If you make an error — a loss of judgment — you could pay with your life for making a mistake. So mountaineering is like being in combat — if you make a mistake, the mistake could be your last. ...
“(But) you always have to find the silver lining in things. ... All of our Sherpas were safe, nobody was killed in our group, everybody went home (safe).
“The one thing in mountain climbing that you learn real quick is the mountain will always be there, it’s not going anywhere. It’s not worth dying for.”
So they tried again. The next year, after equally arduous training, Charlie and Tim were eating lunch at Everest Base Camp when the earth shook violently. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake was centered in Nepal, killing nearly 2,000 people and causing avalanches on Everest. The government deemed the risk too great and the mountain was again closed.
“One would say that’s kind of my luck in life.
“I gotta make lemonade with lemons, you know. … It’s hard to train really hard for that long, and then get to see Everest twice and never actually walk up it. (That) was hard. There’s some disappointment … some heartache involved in it.
“At the same time, that’s life. Life always seems to give you a challenge.
“It’s whether we step up to the challenge or give up.”
Charlie’s quest for Everest began, whether he knew it or not, the day he stepped on an unexploded bomb in Afghanistan.
Realizing that college wasn’t for him just yet, Charlie had joined the Marine Corps two years after high school. His first deployment was to Fallujah in Iraq.
“We got to a fire fight, I think in the first 15 minutes … I remember that adrenaline rush and (thinking), ‘OK, like, all that training up till now? This is real. Those bullets pinging off the armor are meant for us.’
“I definitely grew up a lot in those couple of months. It definitely changed my perspective on the world. …
“It changes you. It changes you as a person.”
Curious and smart, Charlie signed up to become an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician, disarming IEDs — improvised explosive devices; in a word, bombs. Because of where he was stationed, he would see anywhere from five to 10 a day.
“My heart was pounding out of my chest, the first live IED I ever took apart. That, I remember. After that, I just kind of hummed tunes in my head, did what I was trained to do.
“I also knew if it happened to detonate, whatever happened, happened. I signed up for the job. I volunteered for this job.”
Which wasn’t, however, merely factual and rote. Charlie and his team respond to all detonations because of the possibility of more explosives.
“You’re the first person on the scene to very gruesome scenes, a couple a week ...
“I’ve seen entire generations on a tractor be blown up. ... A big tractor, the entire family can fit — the elderly, the parents taking care of them, the kids — probably 12 people on a tractor. All gone in a blink of an eye.
“Then you have to process the scene. ...
“I never realized until I ... got hurt; sitting in the hospital bed, you have to start processing all this stuff. I think the stories need to be told.”
On Jan. 20, 2011, Charlie and his team went out on a routine detonation call. There was an IED hidden beneath another one.
“I remember stepping on it, I remember the distorted boom in my ears, and being out of it and waking up. ...
“I can’t say why — my bomb didn’t fully detonate. If it had, I would have been a triple amputee and I would have died. ... If I had been a triple amputee, 30 minutes is the max. ... It took them 58 minutes to come pick me up. I would have bled out and died on the battlefield that day. …
“People who want to win the Powerball? I already won mine. I can win $300 million dollars, but I can’t buy a life for $300 million dollars.”
Charlie’s time in the hospital was a complicated mix of pain, depression, anger.
“It’s my job to find bombs. Like, I stepped on one, I didn’t find it. I’m mad at myself that I didn’t find it.
“My daily mission was to find explosive devices that are meant to maim and kill Coalition Forces. I took my job very seriously and I enjoyed every one that I found, because I knew I probably saved somebody’s arms or legs or life. I was pissed that I had to leave before my time was up.”
And he was in pain. He lost half of two fingers on his right hand, but it was his right foot and ankle that plagued him. He had numerous surgeries, many experimental, but the pain felt like someone hammering a railroad spike into his foot. He became addicted to drugs that only kept the pain at a tolerable level.
“If I had been forced to stay in my situation, I probably would have killed myself. That sounds crazy, but I mean, I was so depressed; I was angry. I was yelling at my wife, I was yelling at my kids, I was upset all the time. (I’m not asking for) pity but I hated what I was.”
What he had going for him, though, was the support of a couple hundred other men in similar situations — and worse — in the hospital. He met amputees, double amputees, triple amputees, men in wheelchairs and on crutches, and in the physical therapy room, they shared their recovery with insider jokes, ribald teasing, friendly competition — and deep friendships.
“But they were progressing and I wasn’t.”
On June 7, 2012, Charlie ran his toes through the carpet one last time, scrubbed his leg and savored the feel of hot water, and in a thoroughly Charlie-like joke, painted his toenails hot pink and glittery, and spelled his doctor’s name spelled out on each toe of his right foot — just to make sure the surgeon knew which was hers and which was his.
“It wasn’t really a hard choice.”
After the surgery, Charlie remembers looking down at his foot: Gone. Along with the biggest source of his pain.
“(My recovery?) For me it was removing the leg and setting goals for myself. I ran a triathlon three months after I had my leg amputated. Just because. It was a sprint — a two-mile swim, 52-mile bike ride, 13-mile run. …
“I always go back to: You can make the best of what you have. It may not be exactly what you want, but those are dreams, right? That’s the point of having dreams and working to accomplish them.
“I fully believe that happiness is a choice. It’s sometimes the hard choice. It’s sometimes harder to be happy and it’s easier to be depressed or upset and easy to get lost in that world, like I was. I think everybody could wake up and have a decent life, but they have to make a choice, they have to want to do it. ...
“If you get stuck in this world of ‘It’s never going to work out for me, it’s never going to be good,’ then that’s where you’re going to stay. Passing that (happiness insight) along and trying to live that every day is important to me.”
Not that any of it is easy. When Charlie and his family moved back to Boise, away from the support of the physical therapy room, he struggled. There’s still bouts of PTSD and chronic back pain from the explosion, memory issues from multiple concussions and he has a service dog to keep him from panicking in crowds. But there’s also a new sense of purpose.
“I’ve done things that people have on their bucket list or only dream of in their life and I’m, what, only 30 years old? I’ve just scratched the surface of life and I’ve got a laundry list of things I’ve done, places I’ve been. My list is still quite large with things left to do. …
“As I started to evaluate myself, it’s like, O, so … I’m a veteran, but now I’m this wounded veteran. The country supports our troops, which is great, and we support veterans, which is fantastic. But I also (want) to show the country that disabled veterans can do — whatever — they — want — to.”
Tim Medvetz is a former Hell’s Angel and adventurer who was in a severe motorcycle crash in 2001. While he was recovering, amidst predictions that he would never walk again, he hatched a plan that eventually became a nonprofit, The Heroes Project, in which he and one injured veteran would climb a mountain together.
Charlie and Tim hit it off; Charlie became the next climber. At the official announcement, Tim unveiled the destination, a mountain in Indonesia. Charlie googled the peak: worthy, but no risk of failure. At a fundraiser, someone asked him about it.
“He says, ‘I hear you’re climbing Carstenszn Pyramid.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it seems like a fun adventure, but I was kind of looking for a challenge. Like Everest; Tim hasn’t done Everest yet. That would be really cool.’ I was kind of running my mouth. …
“A month later, Tim called and said, ‘You want Everest? Let’s go climb Everest.’”
The aftermath of his Everest expeditions have been way more than Charlie could imagine, both internally and externally. For one, he has become involved in a local nonprofit called Warriors 2 Wellness, which pairs veterans and kids with cancer.
“They look at you like you’re some kind of superstar, which is crazy. But I think they see, OK, this guy does this, life’s going to be all right. … (And) hanging out with kids, you get a lot out of it, too. Giving back was not really on my radar before I got wounded.”
When he was in the hospital, Charlie experienced first-hand how many nonprofits filled the gap of what the government didn’t provide.
“Honestly, acts of kindness have gotten me to where I am in life.”
So now it’s his turn to return the favor, and that’s a new place for him. His summit attempts provide fodder.
“Everybody’s got their own mountain to climb. It might not be a physical mountain, but it still has the same challenges — how do you wake up in the morning and train for it? I’m not just talking physically, but mentally — how do you wake up and train yourself for a draining situation? — Work’s not going right, life’s not going right, you’ve got an ill child, you’re dealing with an ill loved one, you’re dealing with whatever.
“People have a lot of issues, so how do you wake up and make it a better? And do it with a smile, because it’s not easy.”
So that’s Charlie’s mission.
“I always say I’m no longer 100 percent. I’m 70 percent of what I was, but I’m going to squeeze 100 percent out of this 70 percent, because this is what I have. That’s it. I’m never getting back what’s lost, so let’s push this body as far as it can possibly go.… Seeing how far I could push my 70 percent. ...
“If I can climb the tallest mountain in the world, when I come home and go on to the next chapter in my life, there’s nothing that I can’t do.”
If there is a third attempt on Everest, it will be because Charlie isn’t the kind of person to leave something undone.
“If I got up to Camp 4, halfway to to the summit, and I couldn’t go on because my body quit, that’s one thing. I can accept that; okay, done. Couldn’t do it.
“But I can’t accept staring at (Everest), being physically ready to do it, and then have to go away because the government told me I had to go away.”
And even if there isn’t a third attempt, the journey will forever be a part of his story.
“(Everest) was to see if I could make what I am now complete that goal. There’s never been a disable veteran to do it. There’s been a handful of amputees — we’re talking 10 — to do it, but there’s never been a disabled veteran from any country to accomplish that.
“And if I can affect one person, maybe directly — me knowing that person — or indirectly, like I don’t know them but they hear my story; and they get up, they leave their house and start doing (something) in their life ...
“If it just changes one person’s life, then all the misery, everything that has come with it, will be worth it. Maybe I’ll never know if it was worth it.
“I guess I’ll go on living my life thinking that it was.”
©2016 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)
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