Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wounded Warrior Hopes to Inspire Others

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

March 17, 2010 - Army Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister has endured some of the most grueling conditions on the planet.

In the past 15 years, Hoffmeister has tackled extreme challenges with adventure and expedition races through the Rocky Mountains, treks through the Alaskan wilderness and an Eco Challenge in Fiji, not to mention combat tours in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Adventuring is very much a part of who he is.

But in the blink of an eye, a roadside bomb in Iraq all but crushed Hoffmeister's spirit. He nearly lost his life, and was left with little feeling in his left arm.

After months of surgeries and rehabilitation, he found himself falling into a depression, he said.

"Being wounded was a significant experience," Hoffmeister said. "It's a major setback, and it's pretty easy to succumb to your wounds and say, 'I can't do this anymore.'"

Hoffmeister found himself in an unfamiliar situation: stuck at home with nothing to train for and nothing to do. He battled with post-traumatic stress and severe pain, and wasn't sure if he'd ever be competitive again.

That was April 2007. Flash forward to this month: Hoffmeister was voted National Geographic magazine's first Reader's Choice Adventurer of the Year. As part of a six-member team that included three others who are disabled from combat injuries, he conquered Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak -- in June.

"It's pretty humbling to say the least and it's a team recognition," Hoffmeister said of the award. "You look at a lot of the people who've been recognized as adventurer of the year for National Geographic [and] they're incredible people and challenges. To be ranked among these people is amazing to me, but it's also a credit to the way our nation looks at our wounded and recognizes the efforts that we're going through to recover."

Hoffmeister credited his wife, Gayle, for getting him off the couch after months of feeling sorry for himself. A former Army medic and fellow adventure enthusiast, Gayle wouldn't let her Army Ranger husband stay down for long, he added.

"My wife didn't give me a whole lot of time," he said. Gayle began "dragging" her husband to the gym to build up his fitness again. By August 2007, the couple ventured into the Alaskan wilderness for a 26-mile climb and hike on Quail Creek Path.

At the time, Hoffmeister still had a tube inserted into his arm that ran to his chest, providing him with antibiotics four times a day. He found his drive again, and soon thereafter, his wife offered another challenge: climbing Mount McKinley, which also is known as Denali.

"She pretty much told me she was going to climb Denali with or without me," he said. "It's probably one of the best things she's ever done for me. I definitely wasn't going to let her climb without me."

The idea came to the couple in January 2008 to form a team of wounded veterans for the climb. The Hoffmeisters got their team together and began training and finding sponsorships for their expedition. They spent 12 days training on a mountaineering course at Denali National Park, he said.

Hoffmeister said he felt anxious and a bit nervous. After months of surgeries and recovery time to save his arm, he said, possibly losing his arm to frostbite on a mountain wasn't at the top of the list of things he wanted to do.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a sense of doubt and fear about my own ability," he said. "After having gone through a load of surgeries and rehab, doing this was a big risk. I was scared and intimidated, and didn't know what I could do."

The team reached North America's highest point in 16 days. Three members of the team finished the 20,320-foot climb: Hoffmeister, wounded soldier Army Spc. David Shebib and retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Bob Haines.

Gayle succumbed to severe frostbite on her toes at 18,200 feet. Retired Marine Corps Capt. Jonathan Kuniholm, who lost his right arm to combat in Iraq, and retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Matt Nyman fell to altitude sickness at 16,200 feet and 17,200 feet, respectively.

Hoffmeister and crew accomplished a great deal despite the entire team not finishing the climb, he said, as the disabled teammates learned that they weren't as hindered by their disabilities as they may have thought. Most importantly, he added, they overcame any psychological issues they may have had, and they set an example for other disabled veterans and civilians to follow.

"The message goes far beyond what we did on the mountain," Hoffmeister said. "We're trying to set the example for the other guys who are coming behind us and at the same stage we were in, doubting ourselves in the hospital bed, trying to figure it out and [wondering] what [we] can achieve. Anyone who has disabilities, who wants to throw in the towel, hopefully they hear our message and think otherwise. They can pursue things they thought were not possible."

Hoffmeister said he hopes his team's story inspires others. Their journey to 20,000 feet shows that any hardship or disability can be overcome through teamwork and determination, he said.

"We all deal with shared hardships, whether it's long deployments or the fear of combat, and no one gets through it on their own," he said. "They get through it by the strength of a team, knowing when people are weak and when they're strong, and stepping up when you're strong and accepting help when you're weak. If you understand that psychology, you understand success."

Hoffmeister is assigned to U.S. Alaska Command and Joint Task Force Alaska as the chief engineer. He is set to assume command of the 6th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade this summer and is scheduled to deploy to Iraq in the fall.

He and his wife scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania last month. While her husband is deployed, Gayle hopes to scale Denali, and after he returns from Iraq, they hope to form another team of veterans to climb 22,000 feet up Cerro Aconcaqua in Argentina, the highest point in the Americas.

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