Memorializing their fallen and injured comrades never gotten them so high.
Four wounded U.S. soldiers, injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, recently joined some of NFL greats in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, to raise awareness and aid for injured service members.
The trek was conducted through the Wounded Warrior Project – a nonprofit that provides a support network for service members injured in combat. But it was also a chance for these wounded warriors to meet the mental and physical challenge of climbing Africa’s highest peak. which lies just 200 miles south of the equator in northern Tanzania.
Spc. Bryan Wagner of Exeter, Calif., assigned to 529th MP Company, lost a leg during his service in Iraq. He joined former Marine Ben Lunak of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, who had his leg amputated below the knee after he was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. Also on the trek were Sgt. Michael Wilson of Annapolis, Md., who suffers from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after his time in Afghanistan, and Nancy Schiliro from Hartsdale, N.Y., who lost an eye during her service with the Marine Reserves in Iraq.
Each one returned home from the battlefield and teamed up with the Wounded Warriors Project.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, nearly 20,000 feet high, takes physical strength but also teamwork and mental toughness. To help accomplish their goal, the NFL sent three former players to accompany the warriors. They drafted former New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi; Tennessee Titans coach and former Chicago Bears player Jeff Fisher and former Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams player Chad Lewis.
The NFL and active clothing brand Under Armour, which also outfitted the climbers, helped organize and sponsor the climb. In order to prepare for an assent up the peak, the group of amateur climbers traveled for practice climbs in Nevada, Colorado and New Hampshire and completed a three-day training session at Under Armour’s IMG training academy.
“It’s going to be tough. We really wanted to give them the highest performance training that we give any professional athlete that comes here,” Bryan Offutt, director of outdoor marketing at Under Armour, said before the trek. “It’s going to be the worst thing they put their bodies through.”
On May 13, Team Hard Target set out on its seven-day trek. They climbed between three and 15 hours a day, through every environment imaginable – glaciers, snowfields, deserts, alpine moorland, savannah and tropical jungles.
“I was a little bit nervous when they said we were going to go through a rainforest in our first climbing day,” Bruschi said. “But I was still really excited to try and climb this world-famous mountain.”
Along with the grueling hikes and driving rain, the team struggled to adjust to the thin air. At its highest point, Uhuru Peak, which as an altitude of 19,341 feet, the air is so thin that it can cause altitude sickness, shortage of breath, hypothermia and severe headaches.
On day four of their excursion, Wagner posted a message on the WWP website that tracked the team as they went:
“Woke up this morning and it was awesome. We hit it hard. It was really steep, really rocky. The whole team was pretty much like Cliff Hanger- ever see that movie? Exactly the same height and everything!”
Ambitious but tired, every climber ran into their own personal obstacles.
Wilson, who came into the trip with a cold, became even more sick and suffered through extreme headaches until he was instructed by a guide to come back down.
Lunak experienced excruciating pain when his prosthetic leg caused a section of his skin to break down, forcing him to turn around as well.
“Mentally you don’t have a choice, once you step off for that day there is no turning back, but with the pain that I was going through already, if I slipped I would probably fall,” Lunak said.
Schiliro, the only female climber and the one with only has one working eye, battled through perception obstacles with the help of her team.
“A lot of times I couldn’t find my footing and would slip, but I was never scared or frightened. I had my team there, that’s how awesome everyone was,” she said.
Wagner said the hardest part for him was on the way back down when his knee pounded onto his prosthetic.
But his motivation helped him fight through the pain.
“I really kept thinking about all the boys that are coming home. That’s the reason why we’re doing this, to spread the word on this project for them and to those who gave their lives,” Bryan said.
But each climber said they went through an unbelievable experience
And although Lunak and Wilson had to turn around, they both plan on returning to Mount Kilimanjaro next July to finish the job.
Every year some 15,000 hikers climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but only one in 10 people make it to the top.
“The amazing thing was watching the wounded warriors doing what I was doing,” Lewis said. “It really was a great honor and a reminder that there are real heroes among us.”