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NFL players and combat veterans join forces to save lives

(Cody Sowa/Waterboys)

(Cody Sowa/Waterboys)

When NFL players and NFL fans join forces with wounded military veterans ... lives get saved and mountains get conquered.

Super Bowl champion and NFL defensive end Chris Long started the Waterboys initiative to bring together players and fans from across the NFL to build wells and provide clean water to those in need.

Why wells? Clean water can mean the difference between life and death. Every 90 seconds a child dies due to water-related diseases, according to WHO research. This is just one of many alarming statistics. Access to clean water saves lives.

“The clean water crisis demands that we act now. Clean water …ultimately saves lives and completely transforms communities,” Long explained, in a statement emailed to Fox News. “Waterboys aims to do what is necessary to chip away at the problem.”

This year the team provided clean water to the legendary Masai people. To date, the Waterboys foundation has delivered clean water to over 66,000 people and funded 17 sustainable, solar-powered wells in Tanzanian communities. The goal is to install 32 wells representing each of the 32 NFL teams.

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Waterboys champion, Green Beret and former Seattle Seahawk Nate Boyer told Fox News that: “‘Water is life’ is an actual saying in Swahili. Everything starts with that. Once that uniform comes off it’s about still about being able to serve some way.”

Conquering Kilimanjaro

While clean water is the mission, conquering Kilimanjaro was the challenge this month. The Waterboys “Conquer Kili” challenged NFL players and wounded combat veterans to take on Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro.

From teams across the NFL, a range of players and former players have supported the Waterboys initiative, which is now in its second year, including the New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, LA Raiders, LA Rams and the New Orleans Saints.

Could you climb one of the tallest peaks in the world with only one leg? Without your sight?

Remarkable wounded combat veterans and a Gold Star wife accepted the challenge and joined the players. Working together, they succeeded in summiting the 19,341 peak in an amazing adventure.

So who are these rock star wounded vets?

Major Ivan Castro was blinded in combat when a mortar round struck his sniper’s post. Mangled by shrapnel and terribly burned, his lungs had collapsed, one eye was blown out and the other eye damaged by shrapnel. Yet Castro fearlessly battled back and became the only blind officer serving in Special Forces.

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Former San Diego Charger Nick Hardwick described his experience teaming up with Castro: “I couldn't really comprehend my role in the climb with the veterans until my number was called to help lead Ivan up to the summit,” he told Fox News. “It was a powerful experience being with Ivan and being his eyes on a dangerous mountain.”

What was the secret to being a good teammate to a blinded combat veteran? “Constant communication was the key, as we nearly talked out every step of the fourteen hour trek to the summit and back to base camp,” Hardwick said.

“At one point I recall saying: 'On our left is a big rock face. On our right is imminent death. Do not step right!' It was humbling to be of service to the Tanzanians and to the former military veterans who were a huge part of this trip. It felt amazing to service those who have served our country so bravely.”

Former San Diego Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo also played a vital role providing eyes for Castro. You can hear Castro sharing his remarkable story from his dangerous climb of Kilimanjaro to fighting blind and how he shoots blind and still hits targets here.

Retired Marine Corps Sgt. Kirstie Ennis served as a helicopter door gunner. When her helo crashed, she sustained severe injuries, including damage to her leg that required amputation. Ennis achieved a world record as the first ever above-the-knee female leg amputee who has ever summited, according to the Mt. Kilimanjaro Head Park Ranger.

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Retired US Army Ranger Pete Quintanilla, a below-the-knee amputee, who had got very close to summiting before, also took part in the expedition. Quintanilla achieved the summit this time.

Boyer described some of the terrain challenges Ennis and Quintanilla faced on the trek: “The footing is little goat trails, very rocky, very steep at times … even being in great health and having all my limbs and vision, it’s a challenge for anyone in great shape. For them getting it done speaks to their toughness. We were there for each other.”

For prosthetic limbs and especially above-the-knee prosthetics, the footing on Kilimanjaro is extremely difficult, but the veterans overcame the challenge.

Of her teammates, Ennis said: “[It] warmed my heart to see how much the NFL players really wanted to help. They were coming up with all sorts of ideas to try to help figure out how I could get through areas with the prosthetic.”

You can find out more about Ennis’ remarkable story from battling back through 44 surgeries to walking 1,000 miles (some with Prince Harry), professional snowboarding and her experiences on Kilimanjaro here.

Boyer dedicated a well this year in honor of his fallen friend and Green Beret MSG Brad Keys who died in 2012. Gold Star Wife Lisa Keys also took on the challenge and conquered the mountain.

NFL teammates

“The veteran community are not just heroes, they're also instrumental in assuming a leadership role in service projects like Waterboys and conquering Kili,” explained Long. “They know what it means to change the world, to serve and specifically to serve the third world as well as anyone.”

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"Conquering Kili is a unique opportunity for football players, so used to being leaders, to take on the role of a follower,” he added. “We get the opportunity to learn from our service men and women, to be inspired by our veterans. In the process, we all benefit from the teamwork and the bond that we share on that mountain.”

Boyer observed: “To watch these players help the vets up the mountain was amazing … [it ] really gave them a totally different perspective. Someone like Ivan and the struggle he goes through and how incredible what he was accomplishing was … it was all happening right before their eyes.” Having achieved the ranks of both the NFL and Special Forces, Boyer has a unique viewpoint. You can go inside his fascinating journey here.

He also highlighted what the veterans overcame on the expedition. “All three of them face so many challenges and were in a lot of pain for different reasons. Poor Ivan’s shins were banged up every day…it was just brutal. With the amputations, I can’t even imagine the pain on the stumps with the bruising and cutting up. It was amazing that they finished. Because it was not easy.”

UCLA Football Head Coach Jim Mora also took up the challenge alongside former NFL players Chad Brown (Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots), Cory Procter (Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins) and Mark Pattison (LA Raiders, LA Rams and New Orleans).

What’s next?

Upon summiting, the team was only $18,000 away from funding another well. To support the team and their amazing cause head over to www.waterboys.org

Allison Barrie is a defense specialist with experience in more than 70 countries who consults at the highest levels of defense and national security, a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees, and author of the definitive guide, Future Weapons: Access Granted, on sale in 30 countries.  Barrie hosts the new hit podcast “Tactical Talk”  where she gives listeners direct access to the most fascinating Special Operations warriors each week and to find out more about the FOX Firepower host and columnist you can click here or follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie and Instagram @allisonbarriehq.