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THREE WOUNDED IRAQ WAR VETERANS RECOUNT THEIR NEAR-DEATH STORIES AND TRIUMPHANT CLIMBS BACK HOME
Since the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, in 2001 and 2003, respectively, nearly 2 million troops have deployed. More than 5,000 have been killed in action, with roughly 40,000 injured. A good many of those injuries involve amputations. According to Aaron Glantz, author of The War Comes Home, “In February 2008, the Pentagon reported that more than 1,000 Iraq War veterans had become amputees.” Wounded vets face a long list of challenges, including bureaucratic hurdles to receive medical compensation, overloaded military hospitals, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), not to mention adapting to damage or any limb loss. Many turn to therapy, prescription drugs, or self-medication (i.e., alcohol and drugs). Others climb. Here, meet three soldiers Brian Doyne, Chad Jukes, and DJ Skelton (below, left to right) injured in the line of duty who successfully turned to the rock for solace, strength, and growth.
BRIAN DOYNE: THE G-I-M-P
Brian Doyne surveys the routes at SportRock Climbing Gym, Alexandria, Virginia, seeking the perfect warm-up. He scratches his strawberry-blond hair before testing a 5.9. Too easy. The 30-year old former Army sergeant comes here three times a week, chasing the elusive 5.13. Since he started climbing in 2006, after losing his left arm and eye in Iraq in 2005, Doyne has progressed from 5.6 to 5.12. For now, he settles on a 5.10.
Doyne peels off his shirt (“I get sweaty,” he says, laughing), revealing myriad tattoos. One, on the stump of his left arm, shows the grim reaper wearing a gas mask an homage to the fact that at any time, members of Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) squads could die for their work detonating roadside bombs and other explosives placed by enemy fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Doyne got the tattoo in 2003, after graduating EOD school. The image once covered his left arm, and 13 skulls representing all US EOD techs lost on duty since WWII halo’ed the reaper. But when Doyne lost his arm, the reaper’s body went, too. When doctors repaired the damage, only the reaper’s face and fi ve skulls remained.
Doyne secures his climbing prosthetic, a modified Petzl ice axe he and the prosthetics company Advanced Arm Dynamics developed. He ties in, cradling the rope in his stump as he retraces the knot with his right hand. Doyne starts up. Hook, foot, foot, hand. Repeat. Doyne picks precisely, his belayer watching. If Doyne falls, both risk impalement.
The axe is an improvement over the first climbing arm Doyne concocted, in 2006 a stripped-down ice axe reminiscent of the weapon from Sling Blade. “That was a little sketchy,” Doyne admits, “but it worked.”
As Doyne lowers, a boy asks, “Is that a real hook?”
“Sure is,” Doyne says, extending his arm.
“Whoa!” the boy exclaims as his father shuffles him away.
“That used to bother me,” Doyne says. “Not anymore, though.”
Four years have passed since Doyne lost his arm and left eye, along with his close friend Staff Sergeant Dan Gresham. On February 24, 2005, after only 10 days in Iraq, Doyne and Gresham were called to aid a tank patrol hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) near Samarra. At Forward Operating Base Wilson, the lieutenant colonel assembled a reaction force that included Doyne and Gresham.
On scene, as soldiers raced to free the wounded from the tank, Doyne and Gresham turned to each other and hugged. “It was as if we were saying, ‘I’ll see you on the other side,’” Doyne says. Doyne surveyed the ground, looking for loose wires, antennas, detonating cords, and anything else signaling IEDs. Gresham, meanwhile, studied the detonation crater. “I was about eight to 10 yards from Dan when the world I knew went away,” Doyne says. “Nothing but a silence that seemed to last a millennium, or a second. Then the world came crashing back.” Another IED, hidden under the debris, had exploded.
As reality sunk in, so did the shock. “All I could think is, ‘I gotta get moving. If I don’t, I’m going to die,’” Doyne says. “But I couldn’t get up. My legs were either shattered or gone. My combat vest was shredded, and I couldn’t see out of my left eye. I looked at my left arm and saw . . . two bloody bones sticking out of a scorched, shredded sleeve, my arm hanging down by a strip of skin. Then I thought about Dan.”
Gresham died instantly, though Doyne wouldn’t learn this till later. Three days, one emergency surgery, and an 18-hour blood transfusion later, Doyne arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. His wounds included a fractured right ankle, shattered tibias and fi bulas, collapsed left lung, shrapnel wounds to the arms and face, a slashed throat, two shattered ear drums, a skull fracture, and the loss of his left eye and arm. For the next 11 months, Doyne underwent more than 60 surgeries and countless hours of painful physical therapy. He took his first steps four months after the explosion, a good five months ahead of schedule.
When, at month three, Doyne received his first prosthetic arm, he pushed through the frustrating exercises, viewing them as a practice in endurance and self-control. At home, Doyne did his best to adjust to civilian life. When the Army wouldn’t allow him to return to combat, he turned to philosophy, writing, and climbing.
“As good a job as all the King’s horses and all the King’s men did putting this Humpty Dumpty back together again, I will never be quite as I was,” Doyne says. Four years later, he still struggles. “Sometimes I’m overcome by sadness when I look at what’s left of my arm,” he says. “I look at my face and remember . . . before it got pockmarked with shrapnel wounds and burns.”
Climbing provided a necessary release as Doyne recovered. “Climbing is the only time I have to be myself,” he says. “Everywhere else, people see the wounded veteran and the soldier amputee. When I’m climbing, I’m just another guy looking to send.”
Having climbed only a few times prior to his injuries, Doyne’s first outing, at Sport-Rock, was only mildly successful. But with the help of gym employees Garrick Mercer and Jason Montecalvo, Doyne perfected his technique, even learning to dyno and “shock-load” his prosthetic. “At first, climbing was a way to stay in shape,” Doyne says. “It was the only activity that didn’t hurt in intense ways. But as I climbed, it became a coping method.” Doyne has since traveled the country, frequenting Looking Glass, the New River Gorge, and Seneca Rock.
In 2006, as a therapeutic measure, Doyne got another tattoo: this grim reaper extends the length of his right calf and holds an hourglass instead of a scythe. For Doyne, the hourglass represents the finite amount of time in this life and a reminder that death comes for us all. At the reaper’s feet stands a small stick figure giving Death a defiant middle finger, its left arm on the ground.
CHAD JUKES:A TOUGH CHOICE
Chad Jukes, 25, chose to amputate.
On December 17, 2006, Jukes, an Army staff sergeant, traveled with his convoy of armored semi trucks, Hummers, and other vehicles nearly 190 miles north from Camp Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq, to the Qayyarah Airfield (Q-West). As the convoy commander, he was responsible for each vehicle and soldier. Riding in front in a light medium tactical vehicle, Jukes was the first to roll over the roadside bomb.
“We were going along and boom,” Jukes says. “There was a bright flash and this power coming through me. I had this calm realization, ‘This is it. I’m along for the ride.’ The next thing I knew, I was hanging outside the truck.” The blast blew open the vehicle’s doors, forcing Jukes to find purchase on the dashboard. The explosion also broke his right femur and shattered his heel.
“Everyone else was OK,” Jukes says. “My guys loaded me onto a stretcher, and I kept yelling, ‘Someone get me a cigarette!’” A Black Hawk helicopter carried Jukes back to Camp Speicher, where surgeons put an external fi xator consisting of four pins and an external rod around his mangled leg. Doctors loaded Jukes, along with other wounded soldiers, onto a C-17 bound for Germany, then the States. The litters were stacked four high along the giant aircraft, only two feet of space between each. “It was miserable,” Jukes says. For 10 hours, he had “no distractions” from his pain.
The pain didn’t stop when Jukes arrived at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center, in El Paso, Texas. Over four months, he endured four surgeries and endless PT. Infection set in, and Jukes faced a difficult decision: the doctors could rebuild his foot with cadaver bones or they could amputate.
“At first, I was very opposed to amputation,” Jukes says. A Utah native and avid sport climber since age 12, Jukes could not imagine living without the sport. But “I researched online and found other climbers who’d had amputations,” he says. Malcolm Daly, a climber who lost his leg due to a 1999 alpinism accident, assured Jukes he’d be able to climb with a prosthetic. “He told me, ‘I would rather be an amputee than a cripple,’” Jukes says. “I called the doctor, and a couple weeks later, we amputated.”
When Jukes awoke from surgery that March (2007), relief rushed over him. “I thought, ‘Yes. I can start recovering now,’” he says. Six weeks later and just one day after receiving his first prosthesis Jukes hit the Rock Haus climbing gym, in Logan, Utah. At fi rst, he struggled. “His prosthetic wasn’t working for him,” says Dee Jukes-Cooper, his mother. So, “He turned his ‘foot’ around and then climbed up the wall. He’s always been very determined.” Over the following weeks, Jukes tweaked the prosthetic e.g., chopping off the toes until he got it right. “I have to make adjustments to the angle of the foot to work better on a specifi c route,” Jukes says. “It requires some thought and creativity to get through sections. Also, I have no sensitivity to feel . . . my foot position. It requires trust.”
Since resuming the sport, Jukes has climbed in several events, including Gimps on Ice, in Ouray, Colorado; the Hera Climb4Lifes in Utah and Colorado; and Rocktoberfest, in the Red River Gorge. And in summer 2008, Jukes summited Mount Rainier (14,411 feet) with Camp Patriot, an organization that helps disabled veterans experience outdoor adventures. “I am mentally stronger now than I was before,” Jukes says. “The experience has strengthened my resolve to get out and climb.”
DJ SKELTON: STEPPING STONES
On November 6, 2004, near Fallujah, Iraq, a rocket-propelled grenade struck Army Lieutenant DJ Skelton in the chest. By some fluke, it failed to detonate, instead shattering and sending shrapnel tearing through Skelton’s body. Moments later, rounds from an enemy AK-47 riddled his arms and shattered the radios on his chest, as well as the carabiner Skelton had clipped nostalgically to his vest. He lay on the sand fighting for his life as the battle part of Operation Phantom Fury continued around him.
Six months earlier, Iraqi insurgents had captured and killed four private military contractors outside Fallujah, dragging their burned corpses through the streets. Operation Phantom Fury’s mission was to rid the city of insurgents. That morning, at Camp Fallujah, Skelton, then 27, and his men had milled around collecting ammo, readying equipment, and preparing for their first mission into the heart of the city. Skelton, a fi rst lieutenant just two months in country, stole a few moments to write down his thoughts.
“I wrote about the sun rising over the desert,” Skelton says. “I wrote about my soldiers. It was all so beautiful. Life is simple in a combat zone. You wake up, do your job, eat, sleep, and do it all over again.”
Hours later, lying near death in the sand, his only job was to stay alive while his men prepared a medevac. The fight in Fallujah would continue 45 more days and claim 95 American lives, leaving 500 wounded.
For a month after being hit, Skelton was kept in a medically induced coma at Walter Reed. Shrapnel had blown through his right cheek, up through his mouth, and out his left eye. Bullet wounds and shrapnel had shredded his arms, damaging the nerves in the left one. His right shinbones no longer existed, destroyed by the RPG. Doctors would ultimately repair Skelton’s leg, mouth, upper jaw, and cheekbone with titanium plates, rods, bars, and screws.
Six months and 30 surgeries later, Skelton returned to the crags of Washington state (where he previously had been stationed), ready to climb. “The climbing community wouldn’t give up,” says Skelton, now 32.
“The first couple times people asked me to go, I’d say, ‘I can’t do that. I’m injured.’ They’d say, ‘We’ll figure it out.’”
The Elk Point, South Dakota, native had learned to climb on the Black Hills’ spires when he was 7, after a climbing trip with his uncle and cousin. While at the US Military Academy at West Point, Skelton often took weekend trips around New England and the Midwest, frequenting the Gunks, New River Gorge, and the Red River Gorge.
Now, with one partially paralyzed arm, Skelton would have to adapt. With the help of fellow climbers, he soon tackled routes in the Sierras, Joshua Tree, and Indian Creek. “[Other soldiers and friends] were pretty shocked,” Skelton says. “A lot of [the wounded vets] were struggling just to show their faces in public with the scars. In the climbing community, it doesn’t matter. You are who you are.”
Skelton frequently returned to Walter Reed, mentoring fellow soldiers. In February 2007, a vet in his 30s who’d lost both legs in an IED explosion asked Skelton to take him climbing. Skelton told him, “‘Of course.’ But I had no idea how I was going to get this kid with no legs up the wall.” Skelton enlisted the help of the pro climber Timmy O’Neill (TO). Says Skelton, “I essentially called TO out of the blue and was, like, ‘This is me, this is what I want to do, you are the only person I can think of who has a passion and love for this group. Are you in?’ The rest is history.”
O’Neill, whose brother Sean is a paraplegic, flew to Washington, D.C., and he and Skelton arranged for wounded vets to climb at a local gym. “We had no idea what we were doing,” Skelton says. “But we were able to rig systems and work with each vet’s injury to help him up the wall.” That night, ecstatic over their success, O’Neill and Skelton founded Paradox Sports (paradoxsports.org), a nonprofi t devoted to helping the disabled do human-powered sports.
Skelton also became an advisor to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on wounded-warrior issues and, after being promoted to captain, returned to the Defense Language Institute in California to command a 175-soldier company specializing in linguistics in their respective fields. In 2009, Skelton returned to D.C. to research posttraumatic growth at the Center for New American Security, still squeezing in as much climbing as possible. “I love connecting the dots and helping people achieve their dreams and goals,” Skelton says. “Everybody has the potential to be whomever they dream to be.”
A while back, Skelton was looking through old writings when he came across something from the seventh grade a list of goals he’d written down. One of the last ones said, “I want my life to be like a stepping stone.”
“That’s the basis of Paradox Sports,” Skelton says, “a stepping stone.”
Climbing contributor Andrea Sutherland says she’s honored and humbled to have worked with the veterans on this feature.
The Scoop on PTG
By understanding posttraumatic growth (PTG), therapists, clinicians, and patients hope to have more tools for treating trauma and its mental and physical aftereffects. The goal is to help people not only recover from trauma, but also to grow stronger as a result.
What It Is:University of North Carolina psychology professors Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, and Richard G. Tedeschi, PhD, coined the phrase “posttraumatic growth” in the 1980s, defining it as a “positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or traumatic event.” Although the concept has been around for centuries, research began in the early 1980s, and over the last couple years has gained momentum as people recognize its significance in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients’ recovery. According to the UNC professors, posttraumatic growth occurs in five general areas:
New opportunities and possibilities that weren’t present before
A change in relationships with others
An increased sense of one’s own strength
A greater appreciation for life
A deepening of one’s spiritual life
Who can experience PTG: Anyone who has experienced a life-changing event including a sickness, car accident, combat, or a natural disaster can experience posttraumatic growth. “A significant amount of research suggests we are much more resilient than previously thought,” Calhoun says. “It is important to recognize, however, that growth does not mean the absence of suffering or distress.”
The vets featured in the “Amped” story in Climbing No. 280 – the November 2009 Epics Issue, each experienced PTG through the sport of climbing. Says Chad Jukes says, one of the climbers profiled, “My amputation has allowed me to participate in activities I’d never thought I would do [before].”
Paradox Sports: Founded in 2007, this group works with the disabled community, providing adaptive equipment and making it possible for them to participate in human-powered outdoor sports (paradoxsports.org).
Disabled Sports USA: Vietnam vets founded this nonprofi t in 1967; it offers sports rehabilitation programs such as skiing, sailing, kayaking, cycling, and climbing to the disabled (dsusa.org).
The Wounded Warrior Project: A partner of Disabled Sports USA, this group provides programs for severely wounded soldiers transitioning from active duty to civilian life (woundedwarriorproject.org).
Invisible Wounds: Climbing Through PTSD
According to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, as many as 20 percent of vets returning from combat experience some level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms range from involuntary recall of the event, to extreme anxiety or “hyperarousal” during daily activities like driving and sleeping. As a result, many PTSD sufferers turn to alcohol, drugs, and prescription pills for relief.
Marine Corporal Phil Ramirez, 25, served three tours in Iraq, including a six-month stint during the initial invasion, in 2003. After his second tour, Ramirez noticed an increase in his drinking. “I didn’t realize I had PTSD until I had a meeting with the VA,” Ramirez says. The VA diagnosed him with PTSD and prescribed sleep medication. “I only used it 10 times,” he says. “I couldn’t keep taking it because I woke up groggy.” After more than a year in therapy, Ramirez turned to the climbing wall at his local YMCA in Jacksonville, Florida. “That’s my therapy now,” he says.
The military is catching on to the benefits of adventure sports for treating PTSD. In 2008, the Army implemented the Warrior Adventure Quest (WAQ), a program that, among other things, helps vets adjust to civilian life through high-adrenaline sports, including climbing. According to the WAQ website, “Each activity will be followed by an after-action review process . . . to draw similarities between the adventure activity and their Warrior experiences.” In other words, the adrenaline-pumping nature of adventure sports in some ways parallels the battleground, helping, firstly, to ease the transition to everyday life and, secondly, helping soldiers process traumatic events and heal from PTSD. Ramirez, for one, testifi es to its effectiveness: “When I’m climbing, that’s all I think about. It is my coping mechanism,” he says.