Veterans hope to get back on top - climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
By Roberta MacInnis April 4, 2014 | Updated: April 4, 2014 8:47pm Will Cannon, a former sergeant in the Army's special operations force, misses his brothers-in-arms, the "modern-day Vikings" who had his back whenever he kicked in a door searching for the enemy in Afghanistan or Iraq. They shared the wear and tear war inflicts on its soldiers and understood his survivor's guilt when his best friend died of blood loss after an explosion blasted his right leg off.
After he left the Army, Cannon was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Last year, he underwent eight weeks of daily radiation, and, he said, he hit an all-time low. Now he's trying to get back on top. The cancer survivor will be on a team of veterans helping two double-above-the-knee-amputee Navy SEALs climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania this fall. The trip is being organized by the Phoenix Patriot Foundation, which works with severely injured veterans to help them "return to a life of service," founder Jared Ogden said.
Ogden, a former Navy SEAL, says the nonprofit organization fulfills an overlooked niche in veterans' assistance by creating a meaningful, lasting connection with each individual in its program.
"We work in small numbers, like SEALs," Ogden said. "I don't want to take 100 people to a baseball game and talk to just five of them."
The group organizes adventure challenges to re-create the bond military brotherhood engenders. The foundation has taken veterans on jet ski trips from Key West, Fla., to New York and organized pit crews of veterans for off-road races in Mexico's Baja California. The group will host a gala kickoff fund-raiser for the Kilimanjaro trip at the Houston Club on Saturday night. It hopes to raise at least $15,000 toward the estimated $50,000 cost of the trip.
But the trips are only the start. Ogden says the foundation tries to identify what each veteran would truly like to accomplish with the rest of his or her life and then tries to make it happen. It's currently helping former Navy SEAL Bo Reichenbach, who lost both legs in Afghanistan, realize his dream of building a ranch in his hometown, Billings, Mont., which would be open not only to the public but also offer special services for wounded veterans. Reichenbach hopes to return to Billings soon; he has spent the past 20 months undergoing 35 surgeries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
"You develop that trust with the person individually and figure out what they want to do next," Ogden said.
Cannon, a sales rep for an oil and gas company, decided to get involved after meeting Ogden in a bar at an industry conference in San Antonio.
"We are, in our minds, 10 feet tall and bullet proof. We are men," Cannon said. "So whenever one of us gets hurt, loses his legs, for instance, and we come home, you know, and what do we do? What are we supposed to do? At one point I was leading men into battle, and now I can't even walk."
Cannon said the Phoenix Patriot Foundation's mission of discovering veterans' passions intrigued him.
"A lot of these nonprofits do a great job in finding job placements for these guys, but to have a Navy SEAL behind a cash register someplace, it's degrading to them. They may not show it or say it, but inside they're dying."
After Cannon agreed to organize the Houston fundraiser, he discovered something unexpected.
"I thought I was helping them, but what I didn't realize is that they were helping me," he said.
Cannon said he has struggled emotionally since his friend, Dan Croft, was killed, just 17 days before their deployment ended in January 2010. The pair had planned to go into business together, but instead, Cannon attended Croft's funeral on his own birthday, Jan. 23. Cannon also suffers chronic pain from a compressed spine and nerve damage in his back, as well as fractured sinus cavities. Some days, he said, he feels like he's 50, not 26. "I look at Bo ... and all of them, and I see that there's something bigger out there than me just feeling sorry for myself," he said.
Self-reliance on display
Cannon's role during the climb will be to assist Reichenbach, not that he expects Reichenbach to need much help.
"He's a Navy SEAL. Even if he needs help, he's not going to ask for it. I see me not having to help him whatsoever, because his drive and his passion for this is incredibly strong."
"I'm proving to myself that I'm still capable of doing things that most people can't do, even though I'm missing both legs from above my knees."
The other amputee on the trip will be Dan Cnossen, one of Ogden's former platoon leaders and the inspiration for the Phoenix Patriot Foundation.