Wounded War Veterans Reach New Heights

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

Sterling, Va., Feb. 4, 2007 - The sky was the limit forsix wounded Iraq war veterans who met here Feb. 2 at Sport Rock Indoor Climbing Center.

Disabled Sports USA and Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project sponsored the event that brought three double-leg amputees,two single-leg amputee and one soldier blinded during combat together to transcend their handicaps and climb toward recovery.

Volunteers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center sat the amputees in wheelchairs and modified their prosthetic legs for the climb. Carbon-fiber foot shells, designed to absorb the impact of physical activity, replaced standard rubber feet. Rock-climbing shoes were fitted over the composite appendages.

"These guys keep pushing themselves, pushing their limit, and we're just here to facilitate it," U.S. Army Capt. D.J. Skelton, the program organizer, said. "All we did is set the stage so that when these guys were ready and had the confidence to take the step out, it was there for them."

For retired U.S. Army soldier Jake Kessler, who lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in June, this trip to the climbing gym marked his first with prosthetic legs.

"Climbing is one of the passions I've wanted to get back to," Kessler said. "Being able to get back here and climb is the first step of many."

Rock climbing was a cornerstone of Jake and Vanessa Kessler's relationship before Jake's accident, Vanessa said. She said her husband's progress here represents a step in the right direction. "This is just another piece of what our lives are going to look like now," she said. "And every new thing that he accomplishes reinforces the fact that we're going to be okay."

Since she lost both legs in December 2005, Marissa Stroch, a 21-year-old Military Police soldier, wondered if she could still climb.

"A week ago in physical therapy, I heard them say 'rock climbing' and I said, "Oooh Oooh, pick me! Pick me! I wanna go!" she said. "When I came in today, I said, I'm either going to end up leaving here really angry with myself, or really happy."

Here at the rock-climbing center, Stauch fought her way up a 15-foot tall rock and slapped her hand defiantly on its top. "It's definitely a cool feeling to know that I'm still able to do some of the stuff that I had fun with before," she said.

"Whether they're going to use more arms, more legs, more turning of the hips, or be more creative with how they use their body, they're going to find a way to get from the bottom to the top," Lillian Chao-Quinlan, the Sport Rock president, said.

U.S. Army Capt. Scotty Smiley was blinded by shrapnel during combat in Iraq, yet his disability couldn't keep him from climbing a 50-foot wall, the gym's tallest rock.

When asked if he was nervous, Smiley joked, "Nah, I'm not afraid of heights. I can't see the ground.

"As the voices get farther and farther away, I know I'm getting higher and higher," he said. "I don't know how high I am, but I know I'm going up."

After Smiley reached the top of the wall, voices from below guided his hand toward a cowbell hanging within reach. As the mallet slapped against the cast-metal bell, clanging rang from the rock top and mixed with the echo of applause and cheers from below.

"Scotty sees more right now climbing on this wall than most of us see with two eyes in life," Skelton said. "What's it teaching you about the limitations you think you have in life?

"When you leave here, are you going to open doors you closed earlier?" Skelton said. "That's why Scott's doing this: to teach a lesson."

Disabled Sports USA and Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project are partners in the Defense Department's America Supports You program. The program highlights activities corporations, grassroots groups and private citizens are doing to support the men and women in uniform.

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