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Airmen climb to raise money, awareness for vets

Mar. 27, 2013 - 09:40AM   |  
Above, Maj. Rob Marshall leads pushups in memory of fallen airmen on the summit in Tumbarumba, New South Wales, Australia, in 2011. Each pushup generated donations to military charities.
Above, Maj. Rob Marshall leads pushups in memory of fallen airmen on the summit in Tumbarumba, New South Wales, Australia, in 2011. Each pushup generated donations to military charities. (U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge)
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In March 2003, Senior Master Sgt. Robert Disney watched a helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan, killing his friend and mentor, Master Sgt. Michael Maltz.

“He was on the cover of the Air Force pamphlet for pararescue,” Disney said. “His face and how he appeared in that picture is what made me want to be a PJ [pararescueman].”

Disney plans to honor his friend when he accompanies a group of airmen getting ready to leave on an expedition to climb Mount Everest.

“In his memory, I haven’t told anybody this, but I’m going to bring a picture of him and hand it to one of the climbers to leave on top of the mountain,” Disney said. “When they do memorial pushups on top of the mountain, I want them to do one for Mike.”

Disney is participating in the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge, a group of airmen who set out to climb the tallest mountain of each of the seven continents to raise money for charity and commemorate the fallen. They will leave March 28 for the Himalayas and hope to summit the tallest of them all, the 29,029-foot Mount Everest, on May 15, only a few days shy of the 60th anniversary of the first summit on May 29, 1953, by Sir Edmund Hillary.

Maj. Rob Marshall is captain of the Seven Summits Challenge team. He first had the idea of climbing Everest when he visited the base camp there in 2001. Four years later, several of his friends were killed in a plane crash in Albania.

“I guess it’s when I realized that I wasn’t indestructible,” Marshall said.

That’s when he decided to climb the seven tallest peaks in the world in honor of fallen airmen.

“I wanted to do something huge just because life is short and I wanted to make the most of every day I had, so I decided we’d shoot for the moon: We’d go for a challenge that we may never finish but we may as well try,” he said.

The expedition is raising money for two charities: The Special Operations Warrior Foundation and That Others May Live Foundation. People can make donations on the team’s website for every 1,000 feet the team climbs and for every pushup Marshall does at the summit.

“This shows you can overcome your traumatic experiences and use them to fuel yourself to do great things,” Marshall said. “You can overcome mental obstacles and even the tallest physical obstacles in world when you use teamwork and determination. It’s a very U.S. military-centric message that says: ‘We’ve got great skill, use it for something bigger than yourself.’”

But there is a chance the team won’t reach the summit because safety comes first, he said.

“The summit is actually not my top goal,” Marshall said. “That would be a great, great thing to get. I expect to summit but if we don’t, if we have to turn around due to weather or health or any other reason, I won’t consider the mission a failure. The mission will be a success if we give it our best effort and everyone makes it back safely.”

If the team does reach the summit, Capt. Kyle Martin doesn’t know if he’ll be up for pushups.

“Rob Marshall always does memorial pushups, and I know I’m going to get up there and I’m going to have my mask on and my big, silly parka and he’s going to drop down and do pushups and he’s going to give me that look, and I’m going to be like, ‘All right Rob, here we go.’” Martin said. “I’ll try to dig deep.”

Overcoming injuries

For Disney, who is going only as far as base camp, the road to Everest has been a harrowing one. He has sustained multiple injuries over the years — including getting shot in the face by a Taliban insurgent armed with an AK-47.

But Disney refuses to accept any limitations — physical or otherwise.

“People who get hurt in a car wreck on their way to work don’t stop going to work,” he said. “They get their car fixed, they get themselves healed up and they continue going to work. That’s all I’ve done — that’s all any of us have done.”

Disney will be joined by Capt. Augustin Viani, another wounded warrior, making the trek to base camp, which is an adventure in its own right. The south side base camp in Nepal is 17,700 feet in elevation, which would be the third-tallest mountain in the United States. Mount McKinley in Alaska is 20,320. It takes six to eight days hiking from the airport to the camp to adjust for altitude sickness. The base camp on the north side, from Tibet, is a mere 16,990 feet.

Viani was seriously injured in two separate training accidents. First, he fell off a rope ladder from a helicopter and later got entangled in another airman’s canopy during a parachute jump, hitting the ground hard.

His injuries include a broken back, shattered hips and a concussion, but he has received waivers that have allowed him to remain a combat rescue officer, the job he loves.

Not everyone was convinced he would make a full recovery.

“To be honest, maybe it’s my personality, but when I have people telling me that maybe I can’t get back to it, to me, that almost gave me a ‘prove them wrong’ mentality,” Viani said.

He hopes other injured service members will be motivated by his story to ignore the skeptics and aim to recover to the fullest extent possible.

High risk for suicide

While the trip will be risky, the team is helping to assure their success by bringing the team’s medic, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Gibson, another pararescueman, to the summit.

Gibson, a reservist, will look for signs that team members are suffering from high altitude cerebral edema, in which fluid forms on the brain, causing people to act irrationally.

“They’ll take their hats and gloves off — their shirts off even — and not even functioning mentally at all,” he said.

In the event someone does need medical treatment, Gibson will arrange for a helicopter evacuation, tricky at that altitude. In theory, a helicopter can go as high as the summit.

“However, having worked in helicopter rescue, there’s a lot more than getting the helicopter up there that you have to deal with,” he said.

Gibson hopes the climb will bring attention to issues that veterans struggle with, such as suicide. One of his former co-workers, a Special Forces medic, spent 20 years in the Army, retired and then killed himself.

“He never expressed anything to me,” Gibson said. “He never said anything to me. It’s a club of Type-A personalities who are taught to internalize any sort of struggle like that, psychological struggle, because you have to have an element of psychological toughness to do our jobs. Any perception that you might not be handling things psychologically has a very bad stigma to it.”

He wants returning troops to know that when they come back from war, they have to climb their own mountain to return to a normal existence, and it is the nation’s responsibility to help them reach the summit.

“Everybody talks about how the wars are coming to an end and we’re pulling our troops out of Afghanistan — and that’s not true,” Gibson said. “We have a war on our own soil when it comes to suicide, and I think that’s something that we need to address and engage just like any other war.”

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