2 Iraq veterans strive to be first combat amputees to climb Everest
By GREGG ZOROYA | USA Today | Published: April 3, 2016
Chad Jukes lost part of his right leg after a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq in 2006. The same happened to Thomas Charles "Charlie" Linville when he was a Marine in Iraq in 2011.
Now Jukes, a former Army reserve staff sergeant, and Linville want to defy their disabilities in the most extreme way — by climbing the highest mountain in the world within the next two months. They could be the first combat amputees to reach that summit.
"There is a pressure to show the world that I can climb Mount Everest," said Jukes, 31, who, like Linville, has become a skilled mountain climber using a prosthesis. "To say, 'I have one leg, but I can climb Mount Everest. I have PTSD, but can climb Mount Everest. I have a traumatic brain injury, but I can climb Mount Everest.'"
Linville, 30, who is married and the father of two daughters, said he went from being a strong Marine to having people have pity for him after the amputation.
"Getting to the top I kind of view as vanquishing those demons, showing all these people that, 'Don't you have pity for disabled veterans because we're capable of so much more than you think,'" Linville said.
The men are part of two separate teams climbing for two different veterans support organizations. Both climbing parties are taking the less-traveled northern route to the summit out of Tibet and will likely come in contact with each other. That route has a soaring final approach to the top that keeps climbers in the so-called death zone more than 26,000 feet high for up to 24 hours or longer — a region where the human body can no longer acclimate and begins to decline.
It will be Linville's third attempt to climb the 29,029-foot mountain with a veterans organization called The Heroes Project. The former Marine attempted in 2014, but climbers were pulled off the mountain after an avalanche killed 16 Nepalese guides. Linville tried again last year, but the season was canceled after an earthquake struck Nepal, killing 8,000.
In January 2011, Linville was a member of a Marine bomb-disposal unit working in Afghanistan when he stepped on a buried explosive. After a series of surgeries to deal with his damaged right leg, the limb was amputated below his knee in 2013.
He and Jukes don't know each other, though they wish each other well. But the circumstance of two separate efforts to put the first combat amputee at the top of Everest has raised criticisms. . Tim Medvetz, who founded The Heroes Project in 2009 to help combat amputees by working with them to climb difficult mountains, says the group sponsoring Jukes' climb, U.S. Expeditions & Explorations (USX), is trying to "steal Charlie's thunder."
The co-founder of USX, Army 2nd Lt. Harold Earls, who said he came up with the idea independent of The Heroes Project efforts to climb Everest, denies this and says he hopes to link up with Medvetz and Linville during the climb.
"There's no point in having a group of veterans not working together," Earls said, 23, from Cumming, Ga. He said the key focus of the USX effort is to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide in the Army.
Nearly 270 active-duty servicemembers killed themselves last year, continuing a trend of unusually high suicide rates that have plagued the U.S. military for at least seven years, the Pentagon reported Friday.
The USX climbing party includes Earls and Army 1st Lt. Elyse Ping Medvigy. If they reach the top, they would be the first active-duty Army soldiers to climb Everest. "Since I was a little girl, I've always wanted to climb the Himalayas — that's kind of the epitome of climbing," said Ping Medvigy, 26, of Sebastopol, Calif., a veteran mountaineer who served nine months in Afghanistan as an artillery officer.
USX's goal is similar to The Heroes Project. USX works to assemble small teams of veterans and active-duty servicemembers to participate in adventure expeditions to foster teamwork and form lasting bonds that often flow from combat experiences, Earls said. The group has raised $178,000 toward the Everest climb.
Earls, Jukes and Ping Medvigy will make the ascent with a guide, three sherpas and climber/filmmaker David Ohlson, who will shoot a documentary. The expedition begins Thursday, and the team hopes to reach the summit the week before Memorial Day.
Mevetz has climbed Everest twice, reaching the summit in 2007. His organization has led combat amputees to climb the highest summits on all seven continents with the exception of Everest in Asia.
More than 4,000 people have climbed the mountain, and hundreds have died trying. About two-thirds of the attempts are made from the Nepalese south side. The north face is considered more treacherous.
Ping Medvigy, who will be promoted to captain while on Everest, says she has a passion for climbing and has conquered Kilimanjaro plus the tallest peak in South America, the 22,841-foot Aconcagua in Argentina.
"When it comes to high altitude, it's kind of the purity of the sport. It's just you and the mountain," she said.
The highest peak Earls has climbed is Mount Rainier in Washington state at 14,416 feet.
Jukes is rated 80% disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In December 2006, he was a truck commander on the lead vehicle of a convoy in Iraq when twin anti-tank mines detonated. The blast didn't rupture the undercarriage of his truck, but the concussion shattered his right heel and broke his right femur.
Following an operation to repair his foot, Jukes was infected with the superbug bacteria MRSA that went undiagnosed. By the time a civilian doctor identified it after Jukes was back home in Colorado to recover, much of the heel bone had been destroyed.
He chose amputation because the alternative of a reconstructed heel with a cadaver bone likely would result in chronic pain, Jukes said. He found that with a proper prosthesis, he could continue mountain climbing, a sport he pursued since childhood.
Jukes said a big concern on Everest will be the risk of frostbite to his stump, where there is reduced blood flow. This could complicate his dream to reach the summit, he said.
"The most important thing for me," Jukes said, "is coming home with the same number of limbs that I left with. Summiting Mount Everest is not worth losing anything more than I've already lost."
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