The Best Climbing Wall in Iraq
Many people are placed in situations beyond their control. They are faced with unexpected difficulties and may be far removed from their comfort zone. As humans, our reaction to these situations can vary, but they remain our choice. We can succumb to the stress, wallow in self-pity, or choose to make the most of the situation and push ourselves to grow as human beings, testing our personal strength and limits. I know a person who has been placed in a situation far from his true choices and passions, forced to search deep inside himself to discover inner strength and to avoid the reactionary impulse of creating excuses and complaining.
That man happens to be my husband, and the wonderful father of our little girl. Micah Helser is a Medevac pilot for the Army, currently deployed to Iraq. He’s been in Iraq for a year now, and will remain there for three more months. He spends his days sweating in the desert heat, flying rescue missions in a Blackhawk helicopter. His job is dangerous, exhilarating and fulfilling. At a moments notice, he and his crew will climb into the aircraft, despite weather, time of day, or enemy fire. They will fly to a call of distress made by a unit or even an enemy that has been injured by the consequences of war. They fly into any and all situations, first removing the injured and then flying them to a medical facility to receive care and hopefully save their lives. He witnesses violence, anger, blood and tragedy everyday. Mortar attacks frequent the base. After a normal “day at work” most soldiers will spend their limited free time playing video games, watching movies, sleeping, or reading. That may fulfill most of the men and women there, but it is a lifestyle to which Micah has never been, nor does he want to become, accustomed. Although the temperatures can reach 120 degrees, and the sand blows endlessly, the hunt for the joy and peace of being outdoors follows him everywhere. Micah is meant to be in the outside air, whether fresh, cool, Rocky Mountain air, or hot, muggy, tense Iraq air.
Along with another soldier who shares the same enthusiasm for outdoor recreation, they sat down and decided to build their own outdoor climbing wall. This may not seem like an impressive feat to those of us lucky enough to stand on free soil, but in the middle of an Iraq desert, with limited supplies and outrageous temperatures, it is an amazing feat, worth recognition, and may possibly be the sole climbing structure in the Middle East.
In order to begin construction, the project first had to be approved by their commander, meaning a lot of paper work. A climbing wall is not the most important issue a military commander deals with, so it took time. Finally the wall was given approval for construction. The wall was to be built on the under hang of one of the command buildings. All necessary building materials had to be salvaged from other building projects across the base – a piece of plywood one day, a 2x4 the next. Bolts and the proper hardware were either purchased from the States, taking up to a month to arrive, or bought from the local markets. Collecting enough materials for the project was slow and at times frustrating, but the pursuit of their vision kept them going. So between missions saving soldiers injured from roadside bombs, mortar attacks, or gunshot wounds, and after soldiers under their command were cared for, families were emailed, paperwork finished, and all other daily responsibilities were completed, they were free to work on the wall. Finally, after months of hard work and planning, with scavenged mattresses for crash pads and all the holds securely placed, the wall was complete and ready for cranking.
Photos courtesy of Micah Helser
There are few joys in a place of war, and most things become a daily routine with little to look forward to but returning home to family. This simple wall created a source of refreshment, pleasure, the memory of tall rock faces, cool mountain air, and a reminder that war cannot take out what is inside a man. Many have now enjoyed this wall of challenge since it’s construction. Some have climbed before. Others think climbing a piece of plywood in the heat is purely ridiculous. Most climb barefoot, laughing and struggling but challenged and joyful. At times many soldiers desperately wanting to partake in a new adventure that will take them away from the situation at hand, surround the wall. The climbing wall has educated many into the self-explorative world of climbing.
As for my husband, you will most likely find him, during his time off, wearing his brown flight suit half unzipped and tied around his waist, rolled up at the hems, with climbing shoes on, and with the sound of enemy fire in the background. He’ll be traversing the rustic wall allowing him to escape to Smith Rocks, Oregon, reminding him of the pleasures of life, the importance of mountains, and refueling his soul. It serves as a reminder that waiting back home are tall rock spires and cool mountain air.
I salute Micah for not allowing this war to change his soul, for finding a way to include his passions in his daily routine, and for taking the initiative to create a place to find a bit of joy, not only for himself but for others as well. We could all learn a lot from him. We make excuses for not being able to climb, hike or enjoy the beauty of the outdoors, and we allow ourselves to forget the reasons we enjoy living. He refuses to let the world put him down, and he brought a piece of what he loves to Iraq. When he returns from his tour of duty, I know that the smell of juniper and the feel of rock under his fingertips will mean even more to him than they did before. If you are near such a place where you are able to experience these miracles of life, please take a moment to breathe deeply, observe the beauty around you, and touch the cold rock. Be thankful that you are blessed to climb where the only sound you hear is the wind in the pines. Breathe.
So, Micah, climb on. Your wall is beautiful.
—Katie Helser — Proud wife