In support of Soldiers to the-Summit, Polartec is sponsoring U.S. Army veteran and disabled mountaineer Chad Stone in his 2012 attempt up Cotopaxi, a 19,347-foot peak in Ecquador. Chad was kind enough to tell us his story:
I’ll first preface my story with a brief background on my childhood. Originally from Arvada, CO, my family moved to northwest Montana when I was 11, and I grew up feeling drawn to the outdoors. In those years, I spent a lot of time in the mountains – hiking, hunting, fishing. I’ve always felt at home in the outdoors. I also grew up working on a ranch, playing football, and wrestling. Coming from a family of big guys, I grew to be a big dude as well.
I joined the Army out of high school to pay for college. I knew that would be my only path to college, so after graduation I joined the Army as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle systems mechanic. (Note: Bradley Fighting Vehicles are modern tanks.) I was sent to South Korea as a peacekeeper on the North/South border after basic training and advanced individual training. Strangely enough, I was assigned to a unit that didn’t have a Bradley fighting vehicle or any other track vehicle. I was assigned a driving position instead, and split time between driving a Colonel and a 5-ton wrecker. I was really in my element there, loved my unit and my job. Compared to others in the military I had a lot of freedom and living in South Korea. I was able hiked Hallasan on the island on Jejudo (a volcano and the highest point in South Korea), and found some stellar rock climbing as well. All things considered, my time in Korea was an amazing experience.
In October 1998, I finished my deployment in South Korea and was sent to Ft. Steward, GA – or as I like to call it, Swamp Stewart. I was only there for a short time – we were hearing rumblings of a deployment to Kuwait to support continued peacekeeping in the region following the first war with Iraq. To prepare for the Middle East environment, we were sent from Georgia to the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, CA. Even though things were relatively quiet in Kuwait, I was apprehensive about the upcoming deployment. Still, I never even considered staying behind.
Near our final days of training at Fort Irwin, our unit was preparing our vehicles returned and reused for the next training unit. One of our Bradley vehicles had a problem with its “deck.” Think of the deck like it is the hood of your car only it weighs hundreds of pounds. They are spring-assisted, as one person cannot lift it alone. The spring on this particular deck was broken so the deck had to be removed with a crane. This is normally a fairly simple process – remove about 20 bolts, and lift with the crane. The last two bolts were jammed on my unit’s Bradley, so I was summoned as the biggest guy in the platoon to assist.
It is funny how the smallest of decisions can have a huge impact on your life. While removing the final bolt, something in the deck snapped and sent my wrench, the bolt, and the deck flying through the air, directly into my right cheek and jaw. All I remember is feeling like I had been electrocuted.
The medical term for my injury is TBI – traumatic brain injury. This trauma to my brain will be something that will impact me my entire life. After several surgeries and months, I was on the mend, but the Army had decided that my injury was serious enough that I didn’t need to be in the military any longer. I received an honorable discharge and left for college as my unit deployed to Kuwait without me.
Some time later, I remember walking out of an early morning Algebra class on September 11, 2001. I turned on the radio and realized that our country was at war. My mind flashed immediately to the guys who I had served with – they were going to have to this fight to to the terrorists who have impacted all of our lives so significantly. My heart was heavy with the realization that the men I knew could and would perish for their country and the defense of freedom.
I went on to graduate with honors from Evangel University with a degree in Criminal Justice. Following my passion for private investigation (I think this sprung from my Army reconnaissance training), I began to work after college for the largest PI company in the United States. I was placed on several high profile investigations and enjoyed my early career.
On September 12, 2005, about three years after 9/11, I was attending a conference in Kansas City, MO. Things were going well – my boss had just awarded me a promotion, and promised that that if I kept working like I was, the sky was the limit for me in the industry. I was to start a new investigation in Boonville, MO early the next morning.
On September 13, I got an early 3:30 am start from my hotel and began driving to my new investigation. I would not make it there. Around 5:00 am, I was involved in a motor vehicle collision on Interstate 70. Another driver lost control, spun his vehicle, coming to rest across both lanes of traffic, completely blocking the road.
I can remember somehow the moments just before the collision. I thought that at 28, I had lived a pretty good life and even though I didn’t want to die that day, I was prepared to. The next thing I remember was pain and spinning. When my car stopped, I could see that my right foot was seriously broken. I felt a lot of pain but was happy to be alive. I was eventually removed from my vehicle by emergency personnel, and remember insisting that someone bring me my phone so that I could call in sick to work. I told my boss that I had broken my leg and I would be back out at the investigation the next day.
I was in much worse shape that I realized, and was flown by helicopter to the closest hospital where I underwent seven hours of surgery. Three broken ribs, 50+ staples to reattach my scalp, numerous lacerations, and a terribly broken broken leg and ankle. This was a life-changing day. I would never walk with my right foot again after. By January 23, 2006, I had more surgeries than I can really remember and was being wheeled into an operating room to have my right leg amputated below the knee. I had also gained 100 pounds this time, less than five months. I couldn’t move, and the drugs I was on just made me want to eat.
I briefly returned to private investigation after my amputation, but I couldn’t really do it any more. One of the “side effects,” if you will, of my amputation is severe phantom pains. I have a hard time sitting still for long and am never comfortable. This affected my ability to do the job. Eventually I felt that I just needed to get better and moved in 2008 to Colorado to do just that.
As I had in my childhood, I turned once again to the outdoors for inspiration. I began hiking the 14,000+ foot peaks in CO and walked that 100 pounds right off. I began learning new skills like ice climbing and relearned how to rock climb with a prosthetic. I was able to go to Alaska to attempt Mooses Tooth with Chad Jukes, a fellow disabled veteran and Soldiers to the Summit mentor.
Shortly after returning from Alaska, I was contacted about a project in Nepal called Soldiers to the Summit. It was an attempt to climb the 20,075-foot Lobuche Mountain and sounded like exactly the trip I needed. It was a chance to connect with other veterans and have a goal. The opportunity really didn’t seem real until I got on the plane. The movie High Ground documented that project – I encourage you to check it out – www.highgroundmovie.com
I am honored and proud to be back for the 2012 Soldiers to the Summit program, which will culminate with an attempt at Cotopaxi (elevation 19,347 feet) in Ecuador. I have met an amazing group of people though this program, and believe that it can help veterans overcome barriers. The greatest threat to our veteran population is suicide. Every day, 18 veterans make that choice. That is 6,570 per year. Soldiers to the Summit and programs like it help veterans become true heroes by reclaiming their lives.
Six years later after my amputation, I am still trying to learn how to be a one legged guy in a world of mostly two legged people. I have to credit Soldiers to the Summit with helping me on the path to figuring that out.
We want to thank Chad for being a true inspiration to all of us here at Polartec. We will be following his Cotopaxi expedition here on JAZ. You can learn more about Chad on his website: www.chadbutrick.com.