On Feb. 28, 1991, Air Force pilot Steve Connolly rushed to put a tourniquet around the shattered remains of a prisoner’s leg in the middle of a firefight in an Iraqi desert.
It was a life-changing encounter for Connolly — one that, more than 20 years later, would become a guiding force behind a seemingly impossible mission: to lead a group of military amputees on a harrowing expedition up one of the world’s tallest mountains to raise awareness of those who have lost limbs in service to the United States.
A documentary about the February trek undertaken by Connolly’s team — dubbed the Kilimanjaro Warriors — is being shopped around to cable networks, and more area showings are in the works.
More than two decades have passed since Connolly’s Desert Storm deployment; it wasn’t until the 20th anniversary of the operation in Iraq that his mind began to drift back to the events of that day in the desert, to the soldier who lost his leg in battle.
“I wondered if he lived and what his life was like as an amputee in Iraq, and that got me to thinking about our soldiers who lose limbs,” Connolly says.
Rescue in the desert
In early 1991, Connolly had been deployed with the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment to the front to direct airstrikes using then-experimental Air Force technology — a global positioning system device, or GPS. Although a cease-fire had just been called, members of the Iraqi Republican Guard got nervous and began shooting as Allied troops approached an airfield.
Connolly was manning a machine gun from his perch on an armored personnel carrier, riding with three other American soldiers, when they found themselves surrounded by gunfire.
As they fought their way out of the tight spot, they came across three Iraqi soldiers, including the one with his leg shot off. After he applied the tourniquet to stanch the bleeding, they laid him next to Connolly’s machine gun on top of the vehicle. They would drive back to their temporary camp and get help from the regiment doctor.
During the ride, Connolly would smile at the man and help him ride as steady as possible.
“I was tending to him, and we made a connection in that half-hour it took to get medical attention,” Connolly says. “I was trying to reassure him, because there was a chance he was about to die.”
When they reached the regiment doctor, he quickly started an IV for the man with the tourniquet. As Connolly came around the side of the vehicle, he saw him holding his own IV, and the wounded Iraqi, who was now a prisoner, smiled at him.
“He knew who I was and that I had helped him,” Connolly says. “It was a pretty poignant moment.”
Man with a mission
The next year, Connolly left active duty, going into the Air Force Reserves and becoming a pilot for American Airlines. He and his wife, Lisa, who live in Keller, raised three kids (now ages 23, 21 and 18) and filled their lives with activity.
Connolly helped start the Keller school district lacrosse club, serving as its first coach and directing the program until his son graduated high school in 2011. At the lacrosse banquet, Connolly was asked what he would do with all his free time. His off-the-cuff answer was, “I think I’m going to go climb a mountain.”
Around the 20th anniversary of Desert Storm that same year, in fact, he started to read his old journals from his deployment. As his mind reeled back to the Iraqi who lost his leg, he thought about the many American soldiers returning from war as amputees.
And the figures are startling. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, some 1,558 U.S. military men and women lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and the end of 2013.
Gradually, Connolly began to focus on an idea of climbing a mountain and helping military amputees.
“We have more amputees survive than ever before because of the advancements in body armor and medical care,” he says. “I started thinking about these soldiers and giving them a monumental goal. Give them a way to get out of the depression that sets in.
“Give them a mission, because that’s how all military people are trained.”
He researched the Seven Summits — the highest peaks on each continent — and Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania stood out. At 19,340 feet, it is the highest summit that does not require advanced technical skills to climb.
Now that he had the “where” figured out, he had to put together the “how” — funding — and the “who” — the amputee soldiers who would make the climb.
“I let this idea fester. I didn’t have the money to do something like this,” he says.
An old friend from the Air Force Academy connected him with anonymous donors who got the ball rolling by giving 10 percent of the projected cost — $100,000 — for training, travel, accommodations and climbing guides for a party of 10: six amputees and four “wingmen” to offer assistance.
Another friend, a former fighter pilot who sets up scuba trips for amputees, showed Connolly how to raise funds as a nonprofit. Connolly secured assistance from the Air Warrior Courage Foundation; American Airlines; Skyball, the local charity benefiting wounded soldiers and the families of fallen soldiers; and many others.
The friend also connected him with Brooke Army Medical Center’s amputee rehabilitation facility, the Center for the Intrepid, to help form the group of climbers that would become the Kilimanjaro Warriors.
They would include Sarah Evans, 29, an Air Force captain who underwent an amputation from the pelvis down and would climb Kilimanjaro on crutches; Army National Guard sergeant Kisha Makerny, 29, the first female to return to combat as an amputee; Erich Ellis, 28, a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps who was wounded by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan in 2012; Nick Perales, 25, a Marine Corps corporal and sniper who was wounded by an IED in Afghanistan in 2011; Orlando Gill, 41, an Army staff sergeant who lost his leg above the knee after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq; and Steve Martin, 44, a double-amputee and Army veteran who was working as a contractor in Afghanistan in 2008 when he was injured by an IED while riding in a Hummer.
Joining Connolly and the veterans would be Mark Heniser, a physical therapist at the Center for the Intrepid; cameraman Bevan Bell; and spouses Joe Evans, an Air Force captain, and Maria Gill.
After several successful hikes up mountains around the United States, it was time to head to east Africa to face Kilimanjaro.
The first day of the climb, Feb. 10, 2014, the group started out at 7,000 feet in a rain-forest downpour, wet and muddy. Their Jeep got stuck. As soon as they got out, Makerny slipped and fell. She laughed and so did everyone else. Soon everyone was slippery with mud. They had to walk an extra two miles before the trailhead gate just to start the journey.
“I knew it was going to be a grind, but we showed up and it was a . . . monsoon,” says Ellis, who popped ibuprofen to relieve some of the pain on most of the trek. “It rained and rained. We had to hike through the rain forest, slick with mud. It was really bad terrain for people who don’t have ankles. I did not like Day One.”
They were all glad to reach their first camp, which was already set up for them. The group of 11 traveled with guides and porters from Climb Kili, a Mount Kilimanjaro tour company. They took the Lemosho Route, one of the longest trails to the top but one with a high success rate. Six-and-a-half days to the top and one-and-a-half-days back down. The trail goes up through rain forests and moors to tundra and glacier areas.
“It wasn’t until Day Three that we saw the mountain peak for the first time,” Connolly says. “You’re getting acclimated and going up to 13,000 feet, then up to 16,000 and back down to 13.”
When they first saw the summit, they stopped for group photos with flags from all their supporters. While most groups on Kilimanjaro hike for six hours each day, the Warriors typically took 10 hours to cover the same distance because of difficulties navigating the trails.
On Day Six, summit day, they got special permission to make camp at 16,000 feet instead of 15,000 feet so they could make it to the top in the allotted amount of time. Their summit ascent started at 11 p.m., an hour earlier than normally allowed, another special allowance for extra time.
“It was a beautiful starry night, and we hiked by the light of our headlamps,” Connolly says.
A fight to the end
About three hours into the summit trip, the hydraulics on Gill’s knee went out and the artificial joint locked up. Trying to climb in the thin air at 17,000 feet with a nonfunctional prosthetic was too much. He returned to camp with the help of a porter while his wife, Maria, tearfully continued upward.
Much of the 2,400-foot final ascent to Kilimanjaro’s highest point, Uhuru Peak, is a steep rock wall marked with lava towers. Skittering scree gives way to a stony, harsh slope. The mountain is a long-dormant volcano, and the last 600 feet of the climb are along the rim of the crater.
As they walked along the narrow ridge, storm clouds that had been gathering nearby rolled over them and became a blizzard accompanied by thunder and lightning. From about 4:30 to 5 a.m., the climbers could barely see a few feet in front of them. Fueled by stiff winds, the temperature dropped to single digits.
“Sarah (Evans), on crutches, was in the lead. She would take 10 steps, stop and catch her breath, 10 steps and stop for an hour-and-a-half,” Connolly says. “Nick (Perales) was in front of me and Kisha (Makerny) in front of him, and that was as far as I could see.”
Makerny kept falling down, and Perales would help her up. Perales — the most fit man Connolly says he knows — told him, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
And then they were at Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa.
“When we reached the actual summit, the storm cut out for a couple of minutes,” Ellis says. “It gave us a nice little window, then the blizzard started again.”
Emotions were running high at the top.
“When a Marine special forces guy hugs you in tears because he’s accomplished something he couldn’t dream of doing,” Connolly says, “it’s special.”
Then it was time to descend, which Connolly describes with one word: horrendous.
Going down stairs is difficult with a prosthetic leg, Ellis says. A steep slope with ice and snow is unbelievably tough. “I had to sidestep the vast majority of it,” he says. “I was gassing myself out trying not to fall. Eventually, I just butt-scooted it.”
Connolly provided a shoulder and arm to support Martin, the double amputee. He kept falling down and twice pulled a shoulder out of its socket. As he lay on the ground, he would pop it back in.
When they got back to their camp at 16,000 feet, it was 4 p.m. — four hours behind schedule. The climbers removed their prosthetics to find raw, blistered stumps that swelled rapidly with inflammation. Connolly asked if the group could spend the night there.
The answer was no. That type of altitude is dangerous and groups are required to descend as quickly as possible.
“To have to go back to them and tell them to put their legs back on and see them take their swollen limbs and shove them back in there,” Connolly says, pausing to remember. “I felt so low. All I’m doing is hurting these people.”
They hiked three more hours and reached camp at 12,000 feet just as the sun set.
The group took one more day to go the last leg of the adventure. Again the rain accompanied them through the rain forest. A guide told them it was the worst weather he had experienced in his 100-plus climbs to the summit.
At the end of the expedition, they were exhausted and in pain — but exhilarated. They toured the area on safari during the next several days, staying in five-star hotels and getting their strength back.
For the six amputee climbers — the true warriors on Connolly’s team — the experience was assurance that they can accomplish monumental goals.
“If you’re a soldier in any type of special operations, you’re using your feet 24/7,” Ellis says. “To lose one, you’re like, ‘Oh, damn. Can I do anything anymore?’ Being able to go out there and do this was huge.”