Doctors, families, and friends are always telling wounded veterans that their disabilities shouldn’t stand in the way of life. Easier said than done. Recently, three American veterans proved the point: with only one good leg between them, they scaled Mount Kilimanjaro.
The three soldiers survived three different wars—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam—and were sent to Africa’s highest mountain by Disabled Sports USA, whose mission is to give opportunities for disabled individuals to develop independence, fitness, and confidence.
Kirk Bauer, the executive director of Disabled Sports USA, is a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran who lost a leg in 1969—and was one of the climbers. He explains that “if three amputees from three different wars and two different generations with literally one good leg can climb Kilimanjaro, our other disabled friends can get out and go hiking or go biking or swim a mile, can get out and lead a healthy life.”
Learning from Neil Duncan, the youngest climber, and his past attempt to scale Kilimanjaro, the group planned a route to accommodate their disabilities. Instead of three or four days to ascend, the veterans took six days and utilized a special permit to spend the night in tents at 19,000 feet. Duncan explains that “with the right planning and right preparation and right execution anything can be done.” He “knew it was attainable” and offers the expedition as proof that “you can bounce back from a failure in anything.”
Dan Nevins, who lost his legs in Iraq, had to be evacuated on the descent after developing a fever and a nasty cough, a side-effect of a pressure boil on one of his leg’s stumps. His experience highlights the special problems facing amputee hikers. Kilimanjaro’s lower paths are flat dirt, but the higher trails are a rock-and-scree blend that’s difficult for everyone, and even harder for those with prosthetic limbs. The veterans were constantly sliding backward, leading them to feel they were climbing the mountain twice. Going down was even harder. Duncan lost his footing and tumbled down in somersaults; Bauer’s artificial leg fell clean off.
But all three men agree the hardship was worth it: 45 “absolutely spectacular” minutes on Kilimanjaro’s summit and an unparalleled story of accomplishment.