When Army airborne medic Nick Colgin's Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan in 2008, he went from being the one who delivered life-saving help to needing that help himself. He returned home with a Bronze Star, an Army Achievement Medal, the knowledge that he'd saved many lives overseas -- and a traumatic brain injury. During the earliest stages of his recovery, he walked with a cane, struggled to speak, and couldn't spell his own name.
As of Tuesday, Colgin -- now program manager for No Barriers USA -- and three other veterans were at Camp 2 on Mount McKinley, nearly 10,000 feet into their mission to conquer North America's tallest peak. Their 559 pounds of gear include the usual mountaineering equipment, cold-weather survival gear -- and American flags that bear the names of fallen veterans. There's also a Sharpie so they can add more names, relayed to them by satellite phone as they climb the mountain.
The plan is to make the summit on Memorial Day if at all possible, although they've allowed themselves an extra week in case the mountain decides otherwise. Last week, Colgin explained by phone what the climb -- and its timing -- means to the team. They're climbing for those who can't as a way of reclaiming the original meaning of Memorial Day: Honoring the fallen.
Memorial Day mission
"They go overseas and pay the ultimate price, and the one day they get a year is consumed by mattress sales and used car sales," Colgin said. "This isn't a hobby for us, this isn't a Memorial Day vacation. It's a Memorial Day mission."
"If we wanted fun, we would have headed to Kilimanjaro," Colgin explained. "We could have climbed Rainier, been up and down in a day with the names of the fallen, safe at home that night with a warm bed and a cold drink. This isn't about fun or safety, it's about showing the nation what Memorial Day is supposed to look like and honoring those that paid the ultimate sacrifice."
It's also about something that Colgin and his companions -- Margaux Mange, Army MP; Josh Jespersen, Navy SEAL; and Brian McPherson, Marine infantryman -- embody as they conquer the injuries they received overseas: They never, ever quit. In fact, all four used what some view as insurmountable obstacles -- scaling imposing mountains -- to find their way to healing wounds sustained overseas. They've guided others up mountains -- or climbed up themselves -- when they could barely walk.
"A lot of people counted me out, a lot of doors shut that seemed to be open," Colgin explained of being wounded. Then he climbed a mountain with No Barriers. "It ended up opening my eyes to what I was capable of," he said. Now those mountains are more than obstacles -- they're also a metaphor for life, for recognizing the beauty of adversity and overcoming it.
"When it gets hard in the mountains and you're climbing and you want to quit, why don't you quit?" Colgin asked. "Once you get to the top you met your goal, but there's still work to do. You have to get down. There are all these lessons ... by applying them in the rest of your life, you can really succeed."
Life-threatening altitude sickness
Some of the challenges the team faces -- aside from about 20,250 feet of mountain -- aren't readily apparent to the casual observer. None of the climbers are visibly disfigured. But every one is dealing with service-connected disabilities. The traumatic brain injuries, in particular, pose a unique challenge because they share symptoms with potentially life-threatening altitude sickness that the veterans may experience as they climb.
"Is the headache because I was injured in Afghanistan, or is it a headache because I'm at high altitude and I'm not feeling well?" Colgin asked. Their way of finding an answer has been to spend as much time in the mountains as possible, getting a feel for how altitude affects them. Colgin and Jespersen have taking on medical duties for the team, backed by a physician's assistant reachable by satellite phone.
No matter how you feel about the U.S.'s involvement overseas, what's been dubbed Mission Memorial Day isn't political -- it's deeply personal for those involved, including people who've submitted names to be carried up the mountain. When Colgin and I spoke on May 4, they'd received more than 100 names. A week later, they had more than 175.
"A lot of people speak of a military-civilian divide," Colgin said. "Part of the mission, this climb, is letting people know that we all have something in common. In our past, there's something that unites us all and brings us all together ... unfortunately, it's honoring those who have given their lives to this nation."
Even without that connection, at the end of the day it's about caring, Colgin said. "I'd stress that if you didn't serve in the military, never lost anybody in the war, this is your chance to make a connection. You have four veterans that are pulling with their heart and soul to make something happen that's really important to them and to more than 100 families. If you don't know an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran, this is your chance to meet some."
You can get daily updates on the team's progress on the Mission Memorial Day Facebook page (facebook.com/missionmemorialday). If you'd like them to carry the name of a loved one who's a fallen vet up the mountain, email their trip coordinator at email@example.com.
Lisa Maloney is an Anchorage freelance writer; you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org