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Thursday, November 10, 2011
Iraq vet takes on Mount Kilimanjaro

By Hannah Storm/Brainstormin Productions

Nancy Schiliro had always been tough. But after a mortar attack during her nine-month deployment in Iraq caused her to lose an eye, she returned to the United States feeling depressed and lost. "I wanted to just go away," she said. It was a conversation with Jason Martinez, the health and wellness manager for the Wounded Warrior Project, that turned everything around.

Wounded Warriors is a nonprofit organization that reaches out to local vets who have suffered combat injuries and offers them opportunities to rebuild their physical skills and mental confidence through various athletic endeavors. Martinez asked Schiliro if she was interested in participating in a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with several other vets. "I thought for about a second, and said yes," said Schiliro. espnW talked with Martinez about what it took to orchestrate this epic climb.

espnW: What exactly is your role with Wounded Warriors?

Jason Martinez: Basically, it's reaching out to injured soldiers in the community, to find a way to help them get active again through one of our programs. We have a database of about 12,000 wounded warriors who we want to reach.

espnW: Are you also a veteran?

JM: Yes. I served as a Marine from 1997 to 2001, and then I was in the Army National Guard from 2003-05.

espnW: What kind of preparation goes into putting together a climb like this? Did the soldiers have to go through some kind of training?

JM: We put together several activities leading up to the climb, to get them as physically and mentally fit as possible. The first was an intense two and a half day team-building session, where we did a lot of fitness training, but also worked on communication skills for the four wounded warriors who were going to be doing the climb.

espnW: Did you test any of those skills before the climb?

JM: We participated in two events: the first was a 26.2 mile hike in the desert of New Mexico, known as the Bataan Memorial Death March. The second was an event we staged ourselves, a 14,000-foot climb in the mountains of Colorado. We wanted to test the wounded warriors, and see how they acclimated to the conditions. It gave everyone a lot of confidence.

espnW: How many people did the actual Mount Kilimanjaro climb?

JM: There were four soldiers -- two were amputees -- and myself and another member of the organization. We used a tour company for guides and had help carrying some of our supplies up the mountain.

espnw: How long did it take?

JM: Five days up, two days down. But down was actually harder for the below-knee amputees with the strain it put on their legs.

espnW: What was it like at the top?

JM: I can't say. I never made it, unfortunately. One of our amputees started having trouble with his prosthesis on the way up, and we had to stop because of concerns over infection. So I hiked down with him to a place where they could send a rescue cart to help him the rest of the way down the mountain.

espnW: Must have been disappointing ...

JM: I wasn't so much disappointed about not making it to the top as I was sorry to have not been with the team. But in situations like that you just do what you need to do and worry about other stuff later. He still wants to try it again.

espnW: What was Nancy like on the climb?

JM: She is just a beast. Nancy was a Marine and she has that determination in her that makes her unstoppable. She was the team motivator. Even with her own injuries, she was pushing us forward and keeping everyone's spirits high. She is full of energy and never negative -- exactly the kind of person you need in that situation.

espnW: Did you talk with her afterward?

JM: Nancy was ecstatic. She told me it was so different than anything she'd ever attempted before. You could see how proud she was of her achievement. And she should have been.

espnW: And that's the whole point of these programs, right?

JM: Yes. It's really about giving injured soldiers an opportunity to achieve something big, something they never thought they'd be able to do. It's testing their physical and mental limits and, in doing so, giving them their confidence back. You can learn more about our programs at www.woundedwarriorproject.org.

-- Julia Savacool