Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister during Operation Denali. (Jon Kuniholm)
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FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — The roadside bomb that destroyed Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister's Humvee in al-Hillah, Iraq, in 2007, blasted a jet of molten metal through the rear driver's side door to the front passenger seat. It ripped through a sergeant and a gunner's legs, sprayed shrapnel into the driver's back and into an interpreter's face.
When Hoffmeister lifted his left arm to radio for help, he saw a hole had been cut through it. The wound could have ended his career, if not his life, but Hoffmeister would not let it.
The officer from Eagle River, Alaska, fought his way to recovery, and in June is due to assume command of the 6th Engineer Battalion, which may deploy to Iraq in the fall.
"I haven't stopped since I was wounded, I haven't had the opportunity to," said Hoffmeister, who was in the pre-command course here last month.
More impressively, he climbed treacherous Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, with three other wounded warriors.
He climbed with retired Marine Capt. Jon Kuniholm, who lost his arm in 2005 to an ambush in Haditha; Sgt. 1st Class Matt Nyman, a special operator who lost part of his right leg to a Baghdad helicopter crash in 2005; and Spc. Dave Shebib, an airborne combat medic whose face and neck were scarred by a roadside bomb blast in Hawr Rajb in 2007.
Hoffmeister is among an increasing number of badly wounded soldiers to retain a place in the Army. Since June 2007, the service has held on to more than half of the 62,000 soldiers wounded or sickened while serving.
Today's Army retains large numbers of soldiers in part because, unlike during the Vietnam War or World War II, the service is an all-volunteer, professional force, and many soldiers are driven to continue their careers, said Robert Moore, spokesman for Warrior Transition Command.
Hoffmeister keeps pushing himself. He has announced he will build another wounded warrior mountaineering team to climb the 22,841-foot Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina.
The hope is that others like him will climb their personal mountains.
"It doesn't have to be a mountain, it could be running on new legs — that's a pretty big summit, but what's next? Run a 5K, figure out how to ride a bike and figure out how to ride that bike for a week, do 500 miles and ride across America," Hoffmeister said. "Keep pushing the envelope."
Journey to normal
It was a warm, sleepy afternoon in al-Hillah when the blast cut through Hoffmeister's Humvee. Other soldiers freed Hoffmeister's men from the truck, wrapped his mangled arm with a tourniquet and loaded them all onto a chopper.
"There was an absence of emotion: I wasn't crying, screaming, scared, nothing," Hoffmeister said. "Once we were airborne and looking down on the burning hulk of my truck, and the guys running around with everything, that's kind of when it hit, that we were alive and on our way out, and that's when the pain started."
At Balad Air Base, Hoffmeister found himself in a room full of injured soldiers.
"When you're in your own little combat outpost doing your thing, you take casualties — one, two three, four — you don't see the full picture," Hoffmeister said. "In Balad, lying on a stretcher and looking down, there's 20 guys, this guy all burned up, this guy blown up, this guy screaming, this guy calling for his mom, and you're like, s---, a lot of us are getting tore up."
The explosion took out his ulna, his elbow and took with it the radial and median nerve. Today, he cannot bend his arm as much, feel as much or spread his fingers as before. The arm tingles as if it is asleep and it is thinner from muscle loss.
From that day in Iraq, Hoffmeister began a journey to return to normal. His normal.
He convalesced in Landstuhl, Germany, at a civilian hospital in Seattle, and at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
Doctors there discovered that the arm was badly infected. "That was closer to killing me than the wound," Hoffmeister said.
Hoffmeister was treated with antibiotics. A series of surgeries rebuilt his arm around a nerve transferred from his leg and a core of titanium plates and screws from his wrist to his elbow.
His brigade commander asked him in August 2007 to assume command of a rear detachment. "He called me up and said, ‘I figure Hoffmeister with one arm is better than anyone else with two.' How do you say ‘no' to that, so I literally came off the hospital bed into command of 340 guys," he said.
A 1992 West Point graduate with an easy laugh, Hoffmeister and his wife Gayle have lived in Eagle River with their two teenage sons since 2005. She goaded him into his first adventure race in 1999: 150 miles by bike. Since then, he and his wife have participated in more than two dozen such competitions.
Last August Hoffmeister's wife pressed him to do a 24-mile hike of Crow Pass in Chugach State Park, Alaska. They finished in nine hours.
"It was a landmark that, ‘I can get there,'" he said.
They began with daylong hikes, biking and spin classes. All routine before the attack, but now Hoffmeister was on painkillers with a catheter called a PIC line running through his veins and dripping antibiotics to his heart.
"My PIC line got changed out three or four times because I kept shifting it. I'd be riding or doing too much and it would move and get too close and interfere with my heart valve," Hoffmeister said, chuckling.
His doctors were not amused.
"Doctors put people in a certain group, you take pills so you feel no pain and everything you do needs to be limited so you don't cause any additional injury," Hoffmeister said. "I don't fit in that group."
He was frustrated that he couldn't use his left arm to open a door or perform flat push-ups for his PT test. He said he's driven by the fear of what might happen if he took the time to feel low.
"I think part of me is scared to stop, because if I do, I'll lose gains, I'll lose focus," he said.
‘A life-altering experience'
In December, Hoffmeister's wife told him she planned to climb Mount McKinley and that he was welcome to join her. It would be no easy feat: McKinley is a 20,320-foot tower of ice and granite where more than a dozen climbers have died since 2000.
"When she threw down the gauntlet, I decided that I had to face my fears," Hoffmeister said.
He eventually accepted and resolved to form a mountaineering team with other wounded warriors. It all gelled after a back-country ski trip in February 2008 at Chugagh. When an avalanche buried a skier, Hoffmeister joined the search and helped render aid to the man, who was taken by helicopter to a hospital.
"That was a life-altering experience for me, because it told me, ‘See what you can do, you're not broke. You just saved this guy's life in an avalanche where he should have been dead. You can do this.'"
Hoffmeister had been working with an occupational therapist at Elmendorf Air Force Base, first on basic motor skills, and as his strength quickly returned, preparation for more active pursuits.
"The first few months, we were just working on getting some motion back, like tying his shoelaces, and when he decided he would climb McKinley, you could see his whole affect changed," said the therapist, Air Force Maj. Amie Daryanani. "He just seemed more upbeat and positive. He was focused around the goal, and nothing was going to get in his way."
At the same time, Hoffmeister's command of the rear detachment brought him in contact with other wounded soldiers like himself. At the time, Warrior Transition Units were first being activated.
Hoffmeister went through the Wounded Warrior Program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to meet Kuniholm and Nyman. He bumped into Shebib at the gym on Elmendorf.
An improvised explosive device had deeply scarred Shebib's face and sliced his left carotid artery in 2006, he told Army Times. He woke up from a five-day coma in Walter Reed and has had several surgeries, most of them cosmetic.
The physical recovery was not as tough as coping with the facial disfigurement, the "mental grind" of multiple hospital visits and the crushing amount of downtime that comes with being wounded.
All it took was a short conversation for Shebib to agree to join Hoffmeister's climb.
"I didn't want anybody who had had a lot of experience climbing. I didn't want a rock star that way," Hoffmeister said. "Part of my goal was to give them a new knowledge set and a new obsession that they could continue past this mountain to climb."
The crew included Hoffmeister's wife, longtime friend Bob Haines and three guides. They discussed that only half of climbers who attempt to summit McKinley actually succeed.
McKinley, also known by its native Alaskan name Denali, is about 9,000 feet lower than Everest. McKinley is glacial, wind-swept and frigid, with temperatures plummeting to minus 30 degrees in July and worse in winter. Climbers are prone to altitude sickness, frostbite and falls from its icy slopes and crevasses.
Shebib told Hoffmeister that when they got to the top, he wanted Hoffmeister to administer the oath so that he could re-enlist.
The first day, a six-hour, 7,000-foot trek, ended with the team stowing gear and extra prosthetic arms and legs. "Jon is a ‘what if' guy and he had a whole tool kit, and I said, ‘Dude, are we carrying all that? I have a Leatherman, I can get us through it,'" Hoffmeister said.
Along the journey, the metal in Hoffmeister's arm grew so cold that he suffered from mild frostbite. Kuniholm, in spite of his prosthetic, insisted on tying his own knots. The team sneakily stole from Nyman's load to ease the strain on his legs.
Shebib said that his scars were sensitive to the sun, which made them itchy and uncomfortable. He wore SPF 80 sunblock and had to cover up.
On the 13th day, the team hunkered down at 14,200 feet to practice climbing skills and adjust to the altitude. While there, they learned that two experienced climbers had fallen 4,000 feet to their deaths. The team watched the grim scene from afar as rangers worked on the climbers for two hours, to no avail.
"It was a pretty sober reminder of the risk we were taking," Hoffmeister said. "We all recognized the risks: crevasse fall, avalanche or just falling off the mountain. … A bad day will kill you, just like in Iraq."
On the same day, Kuniholm began to gurgle and cough — signs of high-altitude pulmonary edema, which causes the potentially fatal seepage of fluid into the lungs. Kuniholm would have to descend with a guide to safety.
"He had to make the hard call, which was that he had done his climb," Hoffmeister said.
At 16,600 feet, it was Nyman's turn. His breathing shortened, he struggled with his load, and his team lagged behind. He had near-fatal levels of oxygen deprivation and acute mountain sickness. The climbers set up an oxygen chamber for him, but after a rough night, he did not improve. On Day 14, Nyman descended, too.
On Day 15, the rest of the team climbed 3,120 feet up Denali Pass, along a 40-degree slope and flat, exposed terrain and to the summit ridge. "We were disorganized, tired, irritable and feeling the pleasures of mild mountain sickness," Hoffmeister said in a journal entry from the trip.
Two-thirds of the way up the pass, Hoffmeister saw his wife grow disoriented, stumble and fall, sliding 15 feet before the team caught her. She seemed hypothermic from the cold and 30 mph winds, and at high camp, they found that two toes on each of her feet were seriously frostbitten. To save her toes, she was persuaded the following morning to wait at high camp.
"If she had gone up with us, she would have lost her toes, because the weather turned and it got ugly," Hoffmeister said.
The decision was especially tough because his wife had inspired the journey. Hoffmeister said he considers her a wounded warrior, too, for the sacrifices and hardships she endured during his deployment and recovery. She recently decided to attempt the climb again this year.
Nyman, too, will climb Denali again this June, Hoffmeister said.
On Day 16 of the climb, with a third of their team missing, Hoffmeister, Haines, Shebib and their guides attempted to take summit ridge.
At the peak, it was hard to distinguish between clouds and the thickening snow, so the climbers quickly broke out the American flag for photos, and — as planned — Shebib recited the oath to re-enlist.
"How symbolic is that? You recover from your wounds, you climb the highest mountain, and what do you do? You re-enlist in the Army," Hoffmeister said.
They had made it, but the experience was bittersweet. Kuniholm and Nyman were not there, not because of their missing limbs, only the altitude.
"The mountain decides who will climb," Hoffmeister said.
Hoffmeister was struck by the parallel between the climbers who did not summit and fallen and wounded soldiers whose sacrifices enable units to accomplish their missions.
"Those who didn't summit were as much contributors to our success as the wounded are the success of the unit," he said.