Walking with warriors

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers Live
The U.S. Walking with the Wounded team gets accustomed to extreme weather during a training trip to Iceland in preparation for an expedition to the South Pole. Team guide Inge Solheim kept the wounded veterans skiing during a blizzard for hours so they would know what to expect at the South Pole, where they will have to ski about 211 miles, in temperatures that could be well below negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit with 55 mph winds. (Photo courtesy of Walking with the Wounded)

The U.S. Walking with the Wounded team gets accustomed to extreme weather during a training trip to Iceland in preparation for an expedition to the South Pole. Team guide Inge Solheim kept the wounded veterans skiing during a blizzard for hours so they would know what to expect at the South Pole, where they will have to ski about 211 miles, in temperatures that could be well below negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit with 55 mph winds. (Photo courtesy of Walking with the Wounded)

Former Sgt. Margaux Mange hates the cold and the wind. Ever since she was injured during a blast in Iraq seven years ago, the sensation on her skin is absolutely excruciating.

That didn’t stop her from travelling to Antarctica and beginning a trek to the South Pole with other wounded veterans from the U.S., the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth, facing biting winds of up to about 55 mph and temperatures that can drop to well below negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring.

“I’m very scared about my face,” said Mange, who recently travelled to the South Pole on an expedition sponsored by Walking with the Wounded. Still, she’s excited, for not only is the trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s a symbol of just how far she’s come in the past few years, going from a hospital bed to one of the most hostile environments on Earth.

Mange originally joined the Army hoping she could play soccer for the service (She actually gave up several college scholarships.), but once she was in, she decided to go all the way and become a military police officer. Back in 2003, it seemed like one of the toughest jobs open to women.

“Being an MP sounds pretty badass, something that females don’t do,” she explained. “You get to arrest people. I wasn’t really thinking of combat at all, maybe in the back of my mind, yeah … it’s the closest that females come to combat, so sure, let’s do that.”

She deployed to Iraq with the 212th MP Company twice. The first deployment in 2004 was fairly routine. Mange’s company did lose a Soldier, which made the idea of death seem real, but the deployment mostly involved patrols around Baghdad and convoys throughout the country. Her unit also helped with corrections at a prison near the Iranian border.

By her second deployment, which lasted 15 months and came just a year later, Mange had more friends and she knew what to expect. “That deployment seemed like it was easier because you had so many people to rest on. You’d … come home and be able to talk to people.” However, she continued, “it was also a much scarier deployment because we were constantly being mortared and RPGed.”

In December 2006, her unit was conducting a routine patrol with Iraqi police officers at about 2 a.m. As her Humvee approached a mosque, Mange, who was in the gunner’s turret, noticed the Iraqi vehicle behind her slow down and stay about 650 feet back. “The next thing I know is that there’s this huge boom and I’m covered in shrapnel and my head was thrown back into the turret,” she remembered. “I was knocked unconscious for like 30 seconds I think. … I’m just looking up at those walls that were surrounding me, and they’re just covered in bullet holes. Then the pucker factor sets in because obviously this is like a kill zone for them. … It’s just eerie silence. So scary.”

When she was finally able to get out of the vehicle, she saw stars. She was off balance. Her head hurt so badly that she couldn’t even call her parents — talking on the phone was just too painful. A medic diagnosed her with a concussion and gave her three days down. She spent the next three months in a haze of pain. “I know we moved places and that’s all I remember. It’s all a blur.”

Her next real memory is of another improvised explosive device the following March. Her best friend, Spc. Ashley Moyer, was in the Humvee behind her on a routine patrol, and “all of a sudden, I heard the huge, loud blast that I will never forget,” Mange said. “Their truck was upside down in the air. They were hit with a 50-pound IED. I had to watch as my best friend and two others were burned.” Because Mange had been in the lead truck and she was supposed to identify any hazards, she blamed herself.

“I ran to their truck to try to pull Ashley out,” Mange recalled. “I couldn’t do anything. Then the firefight did start and I didn’t give a shit about myself. My SAW wasn’t even loaded. They didn’t want too many people on the ground … so I had to go back to my truck and man the radios. I was talking to the Apaches in the air for air support. I wasn’t even calling them by the correct call sign. I was just completely out of my mind.”

Mange developed Bell’s palsy, partly from the stress and the trauma. She couldn’t regulate her body temperature and consistently suffered from heatstroke in addition to the debilitating, constant head pain she had endured since the first blast. It was like someone was stabbing her with a knife repeatedly. She couldn’t even walk up a flight of stairs without stopping to cry halfway because it felt like all the blood was rushing to her head.

Her unit finally sent her back to Germany for tests. “When I got to Landstuhl, they realized my brain was screwed up,” she said. She later learned she had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury and had trigeminal and occipital neuralgia, but at the time doctors weren’t sure exactly what was wrong, only that she had nerve damage and what they called atypical nerve pain. Either way, they told her she wasn’t going back to Baghdad.

“‘No, I need to go back,’” she told them. “‘I already killed one of my friends. I need to go back.’ I was a wreck.”

Doctors started Mange on a course of nerve blockers, steroids and oblation therapy, which involved a needle in her neck that generated electronic waves. “It hurt so bad,” she said. “It was terrible. … I was on every pain medicine starting from morphine patches and pills all the way down … so I was super doped up. They just didn’t know what was going on with me. … They just wanted to keep me in the clouds and keep me upbeat.”

Upbeat was important, for Mange was haunted by terrible nightmares of the explosion that killed her best friend and two other Soldiers, and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She had only seen one of their badly burned bodies, but it was an image she couldn’t block out. She slept 14 hours a day. She cried all the time. She felt useless and guilty, like she had not only killed her friend, but also abandoned her unit. She was angry, even getting into a bar fight. She felt as though her unit’s rear detachment didn’t care about her.

Doctors finally sent her to Fort Carson, Colo., to be near her hometown and her family, and Mange eventually agreed to undergo brain surgery, hoping it would help her crippling headaches. Surgeons put a piece of cotton in her brain to stop a nerve from hitting a blood vessel, and also cut out her occipital nerve, a nerve that runs from the top of the spinal chord through the scalp.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work as well as Mange had hoped: “Now, I have phantom pain of the nerve in the back of my head. It’s like I have a softball shoved into the back of my skull 24 hours a day. … I honestly wanted to die. There were so many times I looked at a power cord and was like, ‘I could just wrap that around my neck.’ My pain was coming from my head, so I wanted to cut off my head. It’s not like I was suicidal. I just wanted to end my pain.”

The Army offered her a desk assignment, but she knew her career was over. She could no longer be the Soldier she wanted to be. The pain and her PTSD also destroyed her new marriage to a Soldier she had deployed with. Her husband was supportive, but he was going through his own problems after returning from deployment, and she said their marriage never had a real chance.

Eventually, Mange found hypobaric oxygen treatment, and lay in a tube of oxygen for an hour twice a day. After 80-some treatments in a chamber with pressure three times higher than normal, which led to much higher oxygen absorption, she finally began to feel somewhat human again. “It was like, ‘You can live!’” Mange, who still receives the treatments, remembered. She immediately started making up for all the time she had lost.

She competed in the Warrior Games two years in a row, first in sitting volleyball, then in cycling and track and field as well. She started playing soccer again, albeit indoors and on a cushioned surface. The first time she played, “I was laughing the whole time. I just couldn’t stop going. It felt so good to just be myself again.”

She climbed Cotopaxi, a 12,500-foot volcano in Equator, with a group of other veterans. One of them told Mange about Walking with the Wounded and suggested she apply for its upcoming trek to the South Pole. The British charity had sponsored a successful expedition to the North Pole in 2011 for wounded British soldiers, and was opening the South Pole trip up to American veterans. Technically, the three teams (U.S., U.K. and Commonwealth) will be racing, and will be raising money to support other wounded warriors.

“These expeditions, they are more than just conquering the poles,” said Inge Solheim, the Norwegian-born guide for the U.S. team. “They … are inspiration for both disabled people, and probably even more a kick in the ass for nondisabled people. … It’s a very challenging expedition logistically and in many other ways, but it will be very rewarding. I’m sure that the wounded Soldiers will come out of it stronger and with great experiences.”

The southernmost point on Earth sits on a plateau at about 9,000 feet, which is the equivalent of a much lower altitude at the Equator, Solheim explained. You have to climb and then ski to reach it.

“It is an extreme place and nothing is straightforward, but the Soldiers are in the best hands. … Of course, this is an expedition and it’s supposed to be challenging, but we cannot at any point risk anyone’s limbs or health. … We have done everything in our power to train them well for this,” Solheim said, explaining that Walking with the Wounded has evacuation plans in place.

“I would have said anything,” Mange said of her interview. “I can’t believe I’m going.” She found out she was going in December 2012, almost a year before she was scheduled to depart for Antarctica, and started training immediately for the grueling trip.

The team trained together in Iceland, Norway, California and Colorado. Solheim even sent them skiing for miles through a blizzard in Iceland to make sure they were prepared. Mange also spent time hiking, cycling and, most importantly, dragging a large tire. This replicated the 100- to 150-pound sled (known as a pulk) full of supplies that the four veterans and one celebrity from each team would have to pull once they arrived in Antarctica and headed for the South Pole. An extreme weather clothing company has customized off-the-shelf gear for the veterans’ unique needs. Mange, for example, will have some sort of extra face covering.

“Margaux is special because she has a will that is crazy,” said Solheim. “She sets her mind to things and she works very, very hard. Her work ethics are unparalleled. She does what it takes. … It’s been such an amazing experience … to see the journey she’s been on just since we met her the first time. … We had lots of expectations for her, but she surpassed them in every way.”

The group left Cape Town for Antarctica Nov. 19, and planned to spend several days at a base camp at Novolazarevskaya Station near the coast to acclimatize. Then they would be flown to the 89th parallel. From there, they would have to climb and ski to the South Pole. At press time, they were scheduled to finish Dec. 14 or 15, after skiing a total of about 211 miles, although bad weather delayed them for several days at the base camp.

“I’m going to hug the actual South Pole,” said Mange. “I’m so excited.”

(Check back with Soldiers Live in the coming weeks for part two, which will follow Mange and her fellow wounded veterans on their trek to the South Pole.)