When Nicolette Maroulis first came to, she thought she was dead. They were giving her last rites. The priest hadn’t acknowledged that she had woken up, and, so, lying there on that hospital table, it hit her that maybe she hadn’t. Maybe this was it.
She calls herself a control freak, and on 9/11, the world itself was spinning so out of control she’d done the only thing she could think of to take it back. She signed up. The bio says Maroulis had enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Sept. 12, 2001. “It might have been the 14th,” she said. Whatever -- that next working day.
It turned out to be the best thing she ever did. She became a bomb-sniffing dog handler; it was incredible. “Best job in the Navy,” she said.
But then something else happened. She can’t say where. It’s not really important what (“I’d rather focus on my recovery,” she said). Suffice it to say shrapnel and last rites were involved.
Once again, her life was blown off its bearings.
It took her a few years, this time, but now she’s again doing everything she can think of to take that control back.
On Sept. 11 -- this Sept. 11 -- she’s climbing a 14,000-foot peak.
Mike Kirby did three tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, spent more than a decade among the best of the best. He was an Army Ranger, then special ops. He accomplished everything he’d wanted to in the service, and then he walked away, at peace. He came home to climb mountains.
Kirby is going to be one of the guides taking Maroulis and a handful of other vets on that Sept. 11 trek. Officially, the expedition is called the MyBrightMountain.com Paradox Sports 9-11 Veterans Climb, and the plan is to summit Grand peak in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. It’s set to be a triumph for U.S. military veterans who came home from our most recent wars having suffered wounds both visible (several are missing limbs) and invisible.
“It’s a powerful thing,” said Timmy O’Neill, the professional rock climber/comedian/activist/abiding dude, who’s stoked to be going up with the group. “I call it risk-based healing or risk-based empathy. It’s an edgy thing to climb a mountain. But it’s an edgy thing to be in a war. Or sometimes, maybe for some of these guys, it’s an edgy thing to be alive.”
Kirby is perfect in this role. “He’s a bad-to-the-bone guy,” O’Neill said. And doubtless Kirby is, but he doesn’t sound like it. The special ops vet talks about mountain climbing like a kid who’s just seen his first Christmas tree.
He relates the experience to the bond he felt when he and his special ops brothers were all in it together, one for all, all for one.
“To be honest with you it comes pretty damn close,” Kirby said. “But it’s better. It’s more positive.”
He has done what so many who come home from war may never do. He’s found something to fill that void.
He and O’Neill were talking. They should show a bunch of vets what this was like. A veteran’s climb. “Timmy gave me a bunch of dates,” Kirby said. “One of those dates was Sept. 11. And I thought that was perfect.”
And it was. What better day to show the world, to show ourselves, for these vets to show us, that no matter what has happened to us, there’s no stopping us. “It’s very symbolic,” said Andrew Sullens, who lost a leg as a result of an IED blast. We. Are. Back.
Maroulis talked about how when her husband was deployed, after she was injured, the two of them had a deal: she didn’t ask him about all of the dangerous stuff he was doing out there. And he wasn’t allowed to ask her about rehab.
It was a safe space -- he became the one person who wasn’t measuring her by her progress, or lack thereof. He’d be the one person who didn’t see her as the injured girl.
All she did was work like heck to get on her feet before he got back.
“He never expected less of me,” she said. She so loves him for that.
It took longer than she wanted. She was in a wheelchair for almost three years. There were multiple surgeries, nerve damage, a brain injury. No one knows for sure why she started walking again. All the doctors had competing ideas.
“It was fear, and it was frustration,” Maroulis said. And the realization that, maybe, she might not walk again. “And what do I do? If you’re not successful, where does that put you?”
She felt anger. She felt everything. Even when she started getting better, she wasn’t sure about this civilian life: “It was much more comfortable for me sitting at home because I didn’t relate to anybody at the supermarket or on the street, they’d just make me mad,” she said. They didn’t get it. They never would.
But then slowly, she got out there. Exercise. Sports. Feeling a little bit of that camaraderie again.
All those freedoms she’d fought for? “I need to take advantage of those freedoms,” she decided.
All those she’d served with, all those who had come before? “I started feeling like I was honoring them by actually living instead of sitting at home,” she said.
Sullens put it this way: the adversity he’s gone through, these past few years, he’s putting it on that mountain, and man, he’s going to get to the top.
Don’t get him wrong. Things are going great now. Great! But man, he’s going to make it official. Climb a mountain on 9/11?
He’s going up that hill.
In 2009 he saw the flash, and was blasted out of his gunner turret. He remembers waking up in the road, trying to crawl. Somebody patching him up.
His combat infantry career was over, like that. They saved his mangled leg, and he came home to work as a road deputy, a SWAT sniper. And then he finally said, Cut it off. Time to get on with life. He’s off to college now, and things are going great. But he’s going to make it official: That mountain is a manifestation of all he’s been through. To climb it on 9/11?
Maybe some other vets will see them do this, Maroulis said, and realize they can get up and start taking advantage of the freedoms they’d fought for, too.
What’ll it mean, when they get to the peak? What will they feel? The answer is different for everyone, Kirby said. But there’s something about working together, everyone counting on each other, to get to the top.
“This isn’t a child mountain,” O’Neill said. “It kills people every year. Or, the range does. It’s a serious deal.”
Yes it is.
We took a hard shot. We all did. Our country did. My goodness, these vets certainly did. They have injuries seen and unseen.
But those injuries do not define them. That is not who they are. This -- this, what they’re doing -- is.
“Not saying everybody has to go to war or get injured or lose a limb,” Sullens said. “Everybody has adversity.”
Everybody can get back up. On Sept. 11, 11 years to the day the towers came down, these vets are going to climb a mountain. They’re going to raise their arms and touch the sky, for everyone who went before them, and for everyone who is about to get back up.