Guns and Gear

Quest for the summit of Mount Rainier with wounded Special Operations soldiers evokes memories of fallen comrades

Editor’s note: Freelance War Reporter Alex Quade covers U.S. Special Operations forces. She is the recipient of a national Edward R. Murrow Award and the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s “Tex McCreary Award for Excellence In Journalism.”  Ms. Quade’s documentary on Special Operations forces and Other Government Agencies in Afghanistan, “Horse Soldiers of 9/11,” narrated by actor Gary Sinise, is currently in film festivals nationwide.

(MOUNT RAINIER, WASHINGTON) – There is an old saying in the mountaineering world.  When asked why you climb a mountain, the proper response is, ‘Because it’s there!’

But for some wounded and injured United States Special Operations forces soldiers, the response is, “Because I must:  for my country, my teammates and myself.”

This week, another group of wounded warriors gunned for the summit of Washington State’s awe-inspiring Mount Rainier.  They succeeded.

This was the sixth annual climb organized by the nonprofit veterans group Camp Patriot, which promotes positive, life-changing experiences for wounded troops through outdoor “recreational therapy” adventures.

Mount Rainier is the highest mountain in the Pacific Northwest, at 14,411 feet tall.  It is a volcano that takes the lives of climbers every year. As recently as June, a veteran Mount Rainier National Park climbing ranger perished during a mission to rescue a party of climbers who had fallen into a crevasse.

Many try to reach Rainier’s tantalizing summit, but many turn back or are forced back by quickly changing weather conditions.  In fact, of those climbers who make the attempt every year, only about half ever make it to the top.

That challenge makes Special Operators salivate — wounded or not.

Wounded soldiers and war correspondent Alex Quade trek up Mount Rainier on the third day of their journey. COURTESY MARK SEACAT (JULY 2008)

“I wish I were young enough to go up there to do it,” former CIA Paramilitary Operations officer and retired Green Beret Sgt. Maj. Billy Waugh said at the Camp Patriot Summit Challenge kickoff dinner at the beginning of the week.  The Seahawks football team hosted the event July 8 in Seattle.

Retired Lt. Gen. Gerald Boykin, who has served as head of the Joint Special Operations Forces Command and undersecretary of defense for intelligence, joined Waugh in delivering motivational speeches focused on letting this year’s climbing wounded veterans know that their service and sacrifice are appreciated.

“We need to be proud to be Americans because there are many men and women who have, throughout our history, given us the right to be proud,” Boykin said.  “We have done more for the world than any other nation in history, and it is the men and women who have sacrificed for this nation that have ensured that we can be proud of our nation.  Too many Americans are losing their pride, and it is killing us as a nation.”

Though it may seem focused exclusively on the Special Operations community, Camp Patriot adventures are open to all veterans of all wars. Micah Clarke, a former Navy corpsman and the founder of Camp Patriot, has helped train special forces and police units in both the U.S. and Afghanistan.

Clarke’s goal is to help wounded veterans transition to life in society by focusing on their unique abilities through outdoor challenges.

“We get asked a lot regarding the Post Traumatic Stress —[if these activities will help, or if they might trigger a PTS episode] — so we really try to select the vet with the outdoor activity,” Clarke said at Sunday’s event.

Retired Special Operations Reconnaissance Marine Sgt. Keith Zeier, who suffered a severe head injury and lost his left leg after an improvised explosive blast in Iraq, is one of the two wounded soldiers who climbed Rainier earlier this week with Camp Patriot.

“The guides helped make a special ice crampon foot for the prosthetics.  I’m not going to use the [prosthetic] foot that I walk around with everyday because it’s too bulky [in the snow],” Zeier said.

Expert guides Curtis Fawley and Art Rausch began preparing Zeier and another wounded soldier, Army Capt. Victor Munos, for their climb back in May in Colorado Springs. Fawley and Rausch, who started volunteering to help military veterans after 9/11, have climbed Mount Rainier more than 275 times between the two of them.

NEXT: The team completes its journey to the top of Mount Rainier >>