A journey of the heart: Wounded vets, service members conquer the South Pole

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers Live
Britain’s Prince Harry helps Capt. Ivan Castro of U.S. Army Special Operations Command find the ceremonial marker for the South Pole. After losing his sight in Iraq in 2006, Castro decided to remain on active duty and get into better shape than ever. He has run marathons and ultra marathons, biked across the United States and, most recently, joined a multinational expedition of wounded veterans and service members on a trek to the South Pole. (Photo courtesy of Walking with the Wounded)

Britain’s Prince Harry helps Capt. Ivan Castro of U.S. Army Special Operations Command find the ceremonial marker for the South Pole. After losing his sight in Iraq in 2006, Castro decided to remain on active duty and get into better shape than ever. He has run marathons and ultra marathons, biked across the United States and, most recently, joined a multinational expedition of wounded veterans and service members on a trek to the South Pole. (Photo courtesy of Walking with the Wounded)

 

Editor’s note: This story is a follow-up to “Walking with Warriors,” which follows former Spc. Margaux Mange as she recovers from her injury and prepares her body and mind for the South Pole. You can read the original story here: http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2013/12/walking-with-warriors/.

 

 

The biting wind whipped around Capt. Ivan Castro’s ears and nose. He huddled in his thick coat and facemask. Even after two weeks, he still wasn’t used to the sub-zero temperatures. The U.S. Army Special Operations Command Soldier was from Puerto Rico, after all, and he had spent much of his career in places like Fort Benning, Ga., Iraq and the jungles of South America. He would never be used to the cold, to temperatures that dipped to 10 below, 20 below, 30 below. A bright sun glowed in the crystal blue sky above, reflecting on the icy white snowdrifts surrounding him, but its rays didn’t add any warmth and its glow failed to penetrate his world of darkness.
Around him, his teammates clapped and high-fived each other, cheering in a jumble of English accents: American, British, Canadian and Australian. Like Castro, they were marked by their service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some were missing an arm or a leg or two legs. Some suffered quietly from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Those disabilities – limitations, according to Castro – had made their achievement, courtesy of Walking with the Wounded, all the more remarkable.

After a year of intense training around the world – from Iceland and Norway to Colorado and California – and two weeks hiking, skiing and pulling sleds known as pulks that could easily top 150 pounds for six to eight hours a day, they had finally reached it, one of the coldest, most remote spots on Earth: the South Pole.

They had dropped their skis and, arms linked, trudged through the snow to the physical, ceremonial pole together (the geographic South Pole was a few hundred feet away). But now, as his teammates snapped photos or, like former Spc. Margaux Mange, hugged the pole and played “Ring Around the Rosie,” Castro stood there patiently, excited, but a bit lost and confused nonetheless. He couldn’t see the pole, of course, couldn’t tell if it was a foot away from him or five. Then someone grabbed his hand and pressed it against the frigid metallic ball on the top of the three-foot pole.

“Here it is, buddy,” drawled the clipped, upper-crust voice of Britain’s Prince Harry, who had joined the British team as its patron and spokesman. (Alexander Skarsgard teamed up with the Americans while Dominic West signed up for the Commonwealth team.)

“It was just a great feeling,” Castro remembered. “It was touching. It was really touching. Even right now I’m a little bit teary-eyed thinking about what we were able to accomplish. The thought of that journey of the heart – I worked to do that.”

They were an inspiration to Inge Solheim, a native Norwegian and guide for the American team, which included four wounded warriors. “Each and every one taught me lots of different things in conversations we’ve had and how they responded to what I do and … their stories, how the stories had made them who they are,” he said. “Their experiences, for some of them, (they) have done bigger, more impressive things than I’ve ever done. Some of them are facing enormous, Mount Everest-type challenges every day. It reminds me about the potential in people, in human beings. … Seeing the joy and happiness and sense of achievement in their eyes makes me feel very lucky to be able to help them and to facilitate these experiences.”

The 24 expedition members – plus a film crew for a forthcoming documentary – had set out on their epic journey from London, travelling to Antarctica via Cape Town. High winds and snow in Antarctica meant spending a few extra days first Cape Town then at Novolazarevskaya “Novo” station, near the Antarctic coast in Queen Maud Land. From there, a small plane dropped them – and their gear – off at the 89th Parallel.

It’s located on an approximately 9,000-foot plateau that surrounds the South Pole, and as the veterans looked around at the endless frozen desert that surrounded them, they realized just how challenging this expedition really was. They were essentially on their own, so remote that they might as well be the only people on Earth. They would have to pull or carry everything they needed to survive. There was no 911, no ambulance, no immediate help if something went wrong, Castro pointed out. Still, they had trained for this and Solheim had pushed them hard. He believed they were ready.

“I know that they will tell you that I’m not always the most, the nicest guy when it comes to hard training,” he said. “I like to push people because if I don’t do it, I am failing them in preparing them for the hardship that is coming, but there’s always purpose to it, and of course we train hard and work easy.”

Still, 9,000 feet was very high – the curve of the earth and the atmosphere make it equivalent to one and a half times or even double the same elevation at the Equator – and altitude sickness struck almost immediately. One of the other team guides, someone who was very healthy and fit – was even temporarily felled by water in his lungs. The pulks were too heavy for some of the veterans as well, said Mange, who was left with TBI and PTSD after a deployment to Iraq. Her first reaction when she tried to move her pulk was to “wig out.” She had trained by pulling a tire, but now she wished she had pulled three tires, especially when she had to drag her pulk up and over the frozen waves of snow known as sastrugi. The team quickly redistributed some of the weight, and dumped some extra, just-in-case food they had brought along.

They had brought a lot of food. Skiing for 11 to15 miles a day in subzero temperatures requires a lot of calories, about 6,000-8,000 a day, depending on the individual. This consisted of high-calorie, freeze-dried rations that Mange said made Army-issue meals ready to eat look good. Most of the time, she said, she didn’t even want to know what was in them. Castro thought they weren’t too bad, though. He especially liked the chicken curry. Actually, the chicken curry was everyone’s favorite.

The veterans typically skied for two hours and then broke for five or 10 minutes, during which they scarfed down as much ramen and as many nuts or chocolates as possible. Mange was especially fond of mini chocolate and peanut butter candies and would stuff them in her cheeks like a chipmunk. Some of the larger men would actually eat whole sticks of butter. You had to carry anything you wanted to eat or drink (or use for hygiene like wet wipes) during the breaks on your body, Castro added. It would freeze otherwise.

The breaks could be especially challenging for Castro, who had to do everything the other veterans had to do – relieve himself, reorganize his gear, eat – without seeing. He had to take his mittens off for most of it in order to feel his way through the tasks, and within seconds, his hands were so cold they hurt. Wooden balls on his zippers helped him find them easier, and he learned to tuck his hands inside his coat while he was eating. That helped, as did the fact that Solheim had pushed him extra hard during training.

“We tried to … make him very structured with his admin,” Solheim, who has prior experience guiding blind people to the South Pole, said. “We tried to make him more confident so that he didn’t tense up when he was insecure. We tried to work on fitness and balance. We pushed Ivan quite hard because we knew it would be more challenging for him, and the bar is set in Antarctica. Nature has no fairness, rewards or punishment. It’s just consequences. … Nature doesn’t differentiate between him as a blind person and me. … We couldn’t change Antarctica so we had to build him up to be able to do it. He worked really hard and it worked out well down there.”

The trek was also supposed to be a race between the three teams, but, soldiers being soldiers, the competition quickly became fierce as well as friendly, and the wounded warriors pushed themselves a bit too hard. People were straining and exhausted from skiing at a grueling pace. Solheim was not happy.

“I think there’s zero tolerance for frostbite and things like that,” he said. “We have trained these people so well that frostbites are not acceptable. For me, that’s a sign that people stopped taking care of themselves and attention was suffering. I actually met with our team one night, saying ‘This is not good. You guys are not taking care of yourselves and each other. We need to calm this down, remind us why we’re here, make sure everyone comes back safe with a positive experience.’”

He talked to Ed Parker, their team mentor and Walking with the Wounded’s co-founder, and Parker decided to cancel the race. The expedition would go forward, but as one team. It started “a very positive spiral where people started to take better care of themselves, ease down the tempo so that everyone on the teams could follow and no one felt that they were left behind or slowing down the team,” said Solheim.

It also meant that the different countries started to mix, the bonds of war and wounds bridging cultural barriers. “It’s easier,” Mange said, “because you don’t have to get the back story on anybody. You already know.” For example, she bonded with Kate Philip, the lone woman on the British team, and she would hang out with the two Australians from the Commonwealth team. “They’re hilarious, like really funny views on everything. So we would just go over there and talk. … They would make fun of our views, our words, and we would make fun of theirs.

“I think it was nicer when they called off the race because you had more time to just be with people. I enjoyed that a lot, just seeing their points of view on everything and getting to know what their plans are for the future, what their charities are doing for them.”

Their bonds were so tight by the end that, although Solheim usually guided Castro via a long pole from the back of his pulk, as they approached the South Pole on the final day, Castro asked Duncan Slater, a double-amputee from the British team to guide him. “Just think about it,” Castro said. “He’s a Brit double amputee and he’s guiding a blind guy. That is effing amazing. He’s a double amputee, no legs. He’s got prosthetics on. He’s leading me, guiding a blind guy. It says a lot: You see a red coat and a blue coat in the back. It shows the unit of our military, of our nations working together. We fight together, we bleed together, we heal together and now we were skiing together. There was something there.”

The whole experience was moving in a way he hadn’t expected, he added, explaining skiing for eight hours while pulling that sort of weight meant talking was out of the question. He spent a lot of time alone with his own thoughts, listening to his music and thinking about the past. “Music takes you to a time and a place or a person,” he said. “You reflect a lot on your previous life. For me, I reflect on what I used to be before my injury and what I’ve done since my injury. At times it was joyful because I was thinking of my family … but at the same time, it was getting to me, the thought of the past. I spoke to Ed Parker, one of the founders, and I said, ‘Man, I’ve thought a lot about my life and the past.’ He said, ‘Man, the past is the past. Now look to the future.’ And it’s true. The past is behind you. You can’t change it. You can only look to the future. You can’t change the past. You learn from the past.”

But when the South Pole came within sight Dec. 13 after two weeks of skiing, or within reach in Castro’s case, it made it all worthwhile. The moment was surreal, both Castro and Mange agreed. It was more than just an adventure they had or a task they achieved. It was a symbol of everything they had overcome since both were injured in 2006.

“Back then I couldn’t drive myself to an appointment without anybody helping me,” said Mange, who suffered extensive nerve damage as a result of her war injury. She wore an extra mask to protect her face, but found the cold and wind on the back of her head excruciating. “I couldn’t even remember to go to an appointment. I don’t know how I got from there to here, but I’m glad I did. … We got up to the pole and it was just ‘Wow. I actually made it.’ And it wasn’t just the last 15 days. It was this whole last year. We’re finally doing this. It wasn’t getting to the pole. It was ‘I’m making this next step.’ … I’m going to start living a new life.”

Both she and Castro hope they can continue working with other wounded Soldiers and veterans, and as for their next goals, well, Mount Everest is out there and so is the North Pole, “looking,” as Castro said, “so sad and lonely.”

Check back with Soldiers soon to learn more about how Castro and other Soldiers have overcome their blindness and continued to serve on active duty.