A Monumental Mission

American Airlines pilot Steve Connolly organizes a massive recovery goal for wounded warriors.

They call themselves the Kilimanjaro Warriors, and it’s a name that suits them perfectly. They’re a team made up of six disabled vets, two of their spouses, a physical therapist, a cameraman and an American Airlines pilot, all of whom trained together to take on the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.

The pilot, Steve Connolly, is the man who organized the expedition, but he has been preparing himself for such a mission since his time as an Air Force Captain during Desert Storm. Connolly witnessed an Iraqi soldier lose both his legs to an explosion. “I often wondered whatever became of him and what his life would be like as an amputee in Iraq,” Connolly says. “On the 28th anniversary of Desert Storm, I started to think about that experience more and began wondering what lives were like for those coming back from Iraq now.”

That’s when Connolly put his thinking into action. He decided to organize a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro for disabled servicemen and women. “I received the name of a physical therapist in San Antonio at the Center for the Intrepid,” Connolly says. “Together, we interviewed and talked with the vets who wanted to climb. We had to make sure that they were capable of getting their bodies to that point within a year.”

The group then trained for a year: hiking around the San Antonio area, climbing Mount Humphries in Arizona for high-altitude training and trekking in the North Carolina Appalachians in January for cool-weather preparation.

Finally, it was time for their climb up Kilimanjaro. “It was an eight-day expedition and about 50 miles total,” Connolly explains. “We hiked for about six and a half days to acclimate along the way up and around the mountain. On the sixth day, we started the summit around 11 p.m.” The summit, tough to climb under any conditions, was even more challenging as the crew encountered a blizzard. “We finally reached the summit at 7 a.m. the next day,” Connolly says.

And while the view from the top was empowering, the team was far from finished. “The hardest part was the descent,” Connolly says. “The vets were in so much pain. Where their prosthetics attach was taking such a pounding going downhill and causing bruising and swelling.” Those were just his observations. “Never once did any of them complain. They’re all incredibly headstrong people,” he says.

Even through the pain and harsh conditions, it was worth it. “The neat thing about this whole experience is that our small group became a small unit with a mission to focus on for a year — just like most of the vets are used to in the service,” Connolly says. “You train together and everyone wants to help each other out. It’s really rewarding to see it all come together.”

Connolly is quick to credit American ­Airlines with helping it come together also. The airline provided flights for the group during their training, as well as to start their journey to Africa. “They also put us in contact with Friends of Freedom, the Air Warrior Courage Foundation and the Gary Sinise Foundation, who helped support us,” Connolly explains.

His lesson to everyone reading this? “The saying really is true: If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

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