A team including two active-duty Army officers and a retired wounded warrior reached the summit of Mount Everest on Tuesday, capping an expedition designed to launch a new outreach program for veterans and raise awareness of service members' mental health issues.
Second Lt. Harold Earls and Capt. Elyse Ping Medvigy were joined by Staff Sgt. Chad Jukes atop the world, part of the debut of U.S. Expeditions and Explorations, a nonprofit Earls co-founded while a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. The group raised more than $109,000 to make the climb; after covering the cost of the trip, the remaining funds were split between mental health support groups Give an Hour and Stop Soldier Suicide.
Earls began the project last year with assistance from USX co-founder Capt. Matt Hickey and now-retired Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett. Both were originally slated for the climb along with Jukes, an experienced mountaineer who lost his right leg below the knee after injuries suffered in a 2006 convoy attack in northern Iraq.
In 2010, Jukes climbed Lobuche, a 20,000-foot Himalayan peak, alongside other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as part of No Barriers, a nonprofit that offers challenging excursions to veterans, youths and other groups.
Hickey and Burnett shifted into support roles as the climb took shape, with Ping Medvigy, who previously conquered Mount Kilimanjaro and other peaks, reaching out to Earls to join the team after reading about the climb and its mission.
Footage from the climb is expected to be used in an upcoming documentary involving journalist/filmmaker Sebastian Junger ("Restrepo").
The team's official Twitter page announced the news with a photo of the climbers:
Last week, a team including Marine veteran Staff Sgt. Charlie Linville completed its trek to the top of Everest. Linville, climbing on behalf of The Heroes Project, laid claim to being the first combat-wounded veteran to reach the top of the mountain after his attempts the previous two climbing seasons were cut short.
Earls headed to Everest under the impression – one he confirmed with the Army – that the USX team would be putting the first active-duty soldier on Everest. Army Times verified the claim with Army public affairs, and reported it alongside various publications and news releases.
Then-Master Sgt. Karim Mella, atop Everest in 2011.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sgt. Maj. Karim Mella
However, then-Master Sgt. Karim Mella made the climb in 2011 on a 60-day leave from active duty, a year after then-Col. Bryan Chapman made the trek. Like the USX team, the other climbers, both Special Forces soldiers, did so for more than just the experience – Mella carried a flag on loan from a foundation dedicated to helping first responders, and Chapman raised more than $12,500 for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
Mella, now a sergeant major stationed with U.S. Special Operations Command, said last week via email that he had only recently become aware of the USX climb and was "happy to see young service members trying the high one."
"It's great that many of our military and retired military personnel are raising awareness of the many issues that our veterans confront every day," he added.
Mella's climb wasn't the only life-changing battle he faced in 2011 – he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, found during his pre-climb medical workups but not confirmed until after he was off the mountain. He's since worked with the International Prostate Cancer Foundation to encourage early testing for the disease.
He's also running Fundacion Siempre Mas, a nonprofit that helps underprivileged youth in his native Dominican Republic.
Attempts to reach Chapman were not successful.