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Kilimanjaro beckons wounded warriors

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 09:55 AM
TARPON SPRINGS -

Dan Swank lies down on a big ottoman in the living room of a waterfront estate and rolls up his pants.

"I'm nervous," he says as a St. Petersburg College graduate student measures the stump of his right leg. "Wicked nervous."

Nine years ago, an insurgent in Afghanistan tossed a grenade into Swank's Humvee. The injuries forced amputation below the right knee and severely damaged his left leg.

Now, in about 48 hours, Swank and 13 others will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak.

He is part of the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, which leaves from Tampa today to conduct groundbreaking research on the effects of stress, extreme weather and altitude on prosthetics, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Swank has some concerns about how the stress of the trek will affect his stump, which is sealed with skin grafts.

"The skin grafts break easily," he says.

But concern doesn't mean hesitation.

"I don't know how my body will handle this," Swank says. "But I'm going."

On a chilly Friday morning, the gated estate off Anclote Road owned by Carol Martin has been turned into a de facto military encampment.

Gear is piled up, and last-minute instructions are given.

Martin, a private benefactor who has bankrolled the expeditions, says she doesn't mind.

"These men have sacrificed so much," says Martin, who will travel to Tanzania but not climb.

"This is like any other military mission," says Dave Olson, the retired Navy captain from Palm Harbor who created the organization and is in charge of the trek, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday and end on Jan. 29. "There is purpose, mission and end state."

Because of severe weather and extreme altitude, a trek up 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro is arduous for an average climber. But this group consists of men missing limbs, one suffering from traumatic brain injury, and most experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The terrain is not that demanding if you have two functioning legs," says Colby Coombs, founder of the Alaska Mountaineering School, who will lead the climb up the peak they call Kili. "But it is quite demanding if you have prosthetics."

With driving rains, blinding snow, howling winds and a lack of oxygen at high altitude, climbing Kili "is like trying to shovel your driveway while wearing a garbage bag over your head," Coombs says.

It is challenging enough to serve as a remote lab for Arlene Gilles, program director for the J.E. Hanger College of Orthotics and Prosthetics at St. Petersburg College.

Gilles and graduate student Ted Graves, 31, an Air Force veteran, are going along to measure the effects of extreme heat, cold, stress and altitude on the prosthetics.

The veterans taking part have some of the most advanced artificial limbs available — like the X2 system being used by Army Staff Sgt. Tom Costello, 30, who lost his right leg above the knee to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on Sept. 20, 2011.

The most sensitive part of the artificial limb is the socket that fits over the stump.

Though they are form-fitted, prosthetics don't adjust to the rigors of exertion. As the stump swells and shrinks, the skin can become chaffed and bleed and, in some cases, the artificial limb can fall off because of changes in the size of the stump.

Gilles and Graves are taking along an electronic device that will measure the stump sizes. The measurements will be taken twice a day to help researchers one day devise adjustable sockets.

Coombs stands on the estate's wraparound porch inspecting the wide array of equipment the climbers will take with them, everything from several layers of clothing to sunscreen, lip balm, gloves, hats and toilet paper.

Kneeling down, going through his kit, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Rodriguez points out an unusual piece of gear: his son's Kindle Fire e-reader.

During the climb, Rodriguez will use the Kindle to answer a series of questions that will test his cognitive skills and memory.

"Over the course of my 20 years in the military, I have experienced traumatic brain injury," Rodriguez says.

The damage is so severe that his eyes don't focus together, he has trouble hearing and his memory is hazy.

Rodriguez will turn over the data he collects to Stephen Scott, director of the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa, who will use it to help find treatments for traumatic brain injury.

Most members of theteam have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, either as the result of combat, adjusting to life after injury or both.

Tom Barnhill, working toward a master's degree in adventure-based therapy at Prescott College in Arizona, is going along to study whether the climb has any therapeutic benefits for those with PTSD.

The hypothesis, says Barnhill, is that for those who experienced combat, getting together as a team — under physical and mental stress to reach a common goal — will be "beneficial for the reduction of PTSD symptoms."Barnhill conducted "baseline" studies of the climbers before leaving, checking for resilience, depression and adjustment to injury. He will conduct the same tests after the climbers return and again probably six months later.

Barnhill is well-suited for the trip.

He has more than two decades of wilderness adventure experience, spending his free time climbing, skiing, snowboarding, paddling and surfing. He spent nearly a year in Antarctica with Operation Deep Freeze, U.S. military operations in the South Pole.

Gilles, on the other hand, is making her first mountain climb.

"Yes, I am nervous," she says in between measuring the prosthetic strides of Costello, retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Will Wilson, 52, retired Army Staff Sgt. Pete Quintanilla, 32, and Swank. "But I am leaving my family and the comforts of my home because these men gave so much for me."

The climbers are going tocarry an Explorers Club flag to the summit.

"Founded in New York City in 1904, The Explorers Club promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space" through support of scientific research, according to the group's website.

Aida "Idee" Belau, the club's Florida chapter chairwoman, says the Kilimanjaro mission was approved by the club after a rigorous selection process because the studies being undertaken are so important.

Belau is going along, too, but not just as an Explorers Club official.

"I am going to be lugging a lot of photographic equipment."

The trip to Kilimanjaro is the second major expedition for Olson's Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge. In 2011, there was the Mount Denali climb in Alaska.

Also on that mission were Wilson, who lost his right leg below the knee after an accident in 2003 aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise, and retired Army Staff Sgt. Victor "Yeti" Thibeault, who was in the Humvee with Swank and lost most of his left hand.

They have advice for the new climbers.

"Don't keep secrets," Wilson says.

Everyone has different skills, different strengths and will have bad moments, he says. By sharing what they are experiencing, the team will be safer and stronger.

"I'm just glad there are no crevasses," says Thibeault, 31, who fell into several on Denali.

In addition to the science, he says, this climb is about hope.

"There are a lot of wounded in hospitals who have no idea they can do this," he says. "We are showing that it can be done."


haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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