Sunday, June 7, 2009

Every Day Heroes

Army Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister is among four wounded warriors attempting to summit Alaska's Mount McKinley, or Denali, the highest point in North America, June 1, 2009. Courtesy photo

American Forces Press Service

West Point Grad Leads Charge on Denali Despite Combat Injuries

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 2, 2009 - Summiting the highest peak in North America, will make Marc Hoffmeister's other challenges, like earning his commission as an Army officer by graduating from West Point, seem like a mole hill, by comparison.

Mount McKinley, known simply as 'Denali,' in Alaska's Denali National Park, challenges even the most expert climbers. Hoffmeister and three other veterans will face those difficulties, as well as others resulting from their combat injuries, but he's not letting anything deter him from attaining his goal.

"I started planning this [climb] very early in my recovery and it's been both all-consuming and rehabilitative," said the team leader for 'Operation Denali.' "The drive to complete this 'mission' set the conditions for me to develop the skills I've always yearned to possess."

Nearly 15 years after graduating from West Point, the now-Lt. Col. Hoffmeister found himself in Iraq conducting a combined patrol with the Iraq army as an embedded trainer.

It was April 22, 2007, when the patrol was hit by a roadside bomb just north of Hillah, along alternate supply route Jackson. The blast severely damaged Hoffmeister's left arm, causing broken bones and nerve damage. He also suffered a traumatic brain injury and, as he puts it, "The pleasure of accompanying shrapnel popping out on odd occasions."

"I have more titanium than bone in my left arm now, and my elbow is more a collection of plates and screws than an elbow," Hoffmeister said.

He said he considers his rehabilitation ongoing because of slow nerve growth and recovery. He had a nerve transplant from his left leg and was initially hospitalized for two months. He then received home health care for an additional two months, during which his brigade commander in Iraq called and asked him to take over the brigade's rear detachment.

"He stated to me very simply that he figured, 'Anyone with two arms is still only half as good as Hoffmeister with one arm, so would [you] mind taking command of the brigade rear detachment?'" Hoffmeister said. "How do you say no to a question like that?

"So after a brief pity party, I got back to work and assumed command of the brigade rear detachment [with] the catheter line still in my arm [and] oxycodone and Lyrica tempering the pain," he added. "It was a godsend."

The duties gave him a purpose and a focus, and he could relate to the large population of wounded in the brigade's rear detachment, he said. It kept him looking beyond his personal obstacles and moving forward.

Hoffmeister's injury has forced him to figure out how to modify equipment so he can return to activities he enjoyed before his injury. For instance, all the gears that once resided on the left side of his bike have found a new home on the right. He also uses a padded glove and a wrist strap on his left hand to compensate for hypersensitivity and reduced grip strength.

His injuries also affected his climbing techniques. "It's forcing me to learn how to become a much more technically adept climber, as I can't rely on the strength or dexterity of my left arm or hand," he said. "So my lower body technique and positioning must change to reduce the strain and extend my endurance."

The injury, which causes constant pain, has provided Hoffmeister with a new perspective on life, as well.

"I embrace life's experiences far more than in the past because I am far more aware of the blessings that each new day brings," he said. "I've also realized that the combined virtue of my experiences being severely wounded and my rank and position have enabled me to assist other wounded warriors experiencing similar challenges.

"I feel a personal responsibility to assist, motivate or support my fellow wounded warriors in any way that I can," he added.

When asked what has been his greatest triumph since being injured, he's hesitant to provide a concrete answer, mainly because he's hoping that answer will change in a few weeks.

"I'll tell you after the climb!" he said.

Hoffmeister has served on active duty since graduating from West Point 17 years ago. He's the chief engineer for Alaskan Command/Joint Task Force Alaska at Elmendorf Air Force Base and lives in Eagle River, Alaska, with his wife, Gayle, and two Jack Russell terriers, Max and Bailey.

Gayle also will make the climb with the Operation Denali team as a peer mentor. The group set out for base camp on June 1 and expects to complete their trek by June 22.
Related Sites:
Operation Denali
U.S. Army
Related Articles:
Wounded Warriors Set Out to Conquer North America's Highest Peak
Special Report: Operation Denali

And then there is this:
Army Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister, top left; Army Spc. Dave Shebib, top right; retired Marine Capt. Jon Kuniholm, bottom left; and retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Nyman -- all wounded veterans -- are attempting to summit North America's highest peak, June 1, 2009. Courtesy photo

American Forces Press Service

Wounded Veteran Hopes to Inspire Others in Mountain Quest

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 3, 2009 – The loss of his right arm while serving in Iraq made something as simple as eating a challenge for retired Marine Capt. Jonathan F. Kuniholm, who recently set out with three other wounded veterans to conquer Mount McKinley, also known as “Denali” because it’s located in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Reserve.

“Following the loss of my right arm in Iraq on New Year’s Day 2005, the most basic of things became a challenge -- writing my name, putting on a pair of pants in the morning, tying my shoes, cutting a steak,” he said. “After putting up a ceiling fan that spring with my 5-year-old son, I realized that as long as I was patient enough, I could do whatever I wanted.”

By the end of that year, Kuniholm had resumed many of the things he’d done before his injury, though he finds some activities difficult enough that he doesn’t pursue them much, including playing the guitar or sports with his son.

In fact, it’s affected just about every other area of his life as well.

“All of it is impacted in some way, from the moment I get up in the morning,” he said. “I can do many things, … and many take much longer or I do inexpertly.”

Kuniholm was dismounted from a riverine craft on the shore of the Euphrates River south of Haditha, Iraq, when insurgents used a homemade bomb to initiate what he described as a sophisticated ambush on the platoon. The platoon, which was not his assigned unit, handled the ambush effectively, but three servicemembers suffered serious injuries and one was killed. One sailor, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Juan Rubio, earned a Silver Star during the engagement.

Kuniholm had played his guitar the night before in a talent show. He described himself as pretty rusty, since he hadn’t played in months. In retrospect, he said, it was interesting, considering what would happen the next day.

“It took about a year before I was done with surgeries, fitted with prostheses, and ready to get back to my life,” Kuniholm said. “Prosthetic arms are, as I discovered, still very much a work in progress, and if you want to call that part of my rehabilitation, my work to improve prosthetic arms continues.”

This, he said, has become his new calling in life. Realizing the deficiencies in prosthetic arms, he began working as an engineer on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 program. He also started Open Prosthetics Project, a nonprofit group, to further innovations in arm prosthetics.

“While my professional goal is to improve the technology amputees all over the world use to replace their arms, I have a new personal goal as well,” Kuniholm said.

Human beings are incredibly resilient and capable of nearly anything they set their minds to, he said.

“People with disabilities have a greater set of challenges, and while the road may be longer and harder, [we] have just as few limits to what we can achieve,” he said. “Climbing Denali is a task that many able-bodied folks would never undertake. By being part of a team tackling that task while sharing the additional challenges of disability, I hope to inspire others with similar challenges.

“I hope as well to remove the limits placed on their expectations of what they can achieve,” he added. “This won’t make getting dressed, eating, or anything else any easier, but it’s my hope that it will make any challenge seem possible and less of a chore to undertake.”

Kuniholm already has started to set an example for others who have disabilities and big dreams.

With the help of his flight instructor, he recently renewed his pilot’s license and has returned to flying as a private pilot. Earning a private pilot’s license is possible for those with disabilities who have never flown before, he said.

The successes occasionally are tempered by the public’s reaction, which he said his cousin likened to being out and about with a pregnant woman.

“It’s undeniable [that I’m missing an arm], and many people assume that this fact means you want to talk about it,” Kuniholm said. “As you might imagine, being involved in prosthetic arm research, I’ll always talk about prosthetic arms, but I have had that conversation before, and sometimes it’s nice to talk about something else.”

Kuniholm lives in Durham, N.C., with his wife, Michele, and son, Sam, 7. He served as the engineer officer and platoon commander of the 2nd Platoon, 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, attached to the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines, in Iraq’s Anbar province from Aug. 17, 2004, until his injury.

He is part of a seven-member team -- four wounded veterans, two mentors and one guide – whose attempt to reach North America’s highest peak began this week.

Related Sites:
Veterans Coalition Operation Denali Web Site

Related Articles:
Special Report: Operation Denali


Thank you ALL for your service.

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