West Point Grad Leads Charge on Denali Despite Combat Injuries
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 2, 2009 Summiting the highest peak in North America, will make Marc Hoffmeister’s other challenges, like earning his commission as an Army officer by graduating from West Point, seem like a mole hill, by comparison.
Army Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister, top left; Army Spc. Dave Shebib, top right; retired Marine Capt. Jon Kuniholm, bottom left; and retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Nyman, bottom right, all wounded warriors, are attempting to summit Alaska's Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, the highest point in North America, June 1, 2009. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Mount McKinley, known simply as ‘Denali,’ in Alaska’s Denali National Park, challenges even the most expert climbers. Hoffmeister and three other veterans will face those difficulties, as well as others resulting from their combat injuries, but he’s not letting anything deter him from attaining his goal.
“I started planning this [climb] very early in my recovery and it’s been both all-consuming and rehabilitative,” said the team leader for ’Operation Denali.’ “The drive to complete this ‘mission’ set the conditions for me to develop the skills I’ve always yearned to possess.”
Nearly 15 years after graduating from West Point, the now-Lt. Col. Hoffmeister found himself in Iraq conducting a combined patrol with the Iraq army as an embedded trainer.
It was April 22, 2007, when the patrol was hit by a roadside bomb just north of Hillah, along alternate supply route Jackson. The blast severely damaged Hoffmeister’s left arm, causing broken bones and nerve damage. He also suffered a traumatic brain injury and, as he puts it, “The pleasure of accompanying shrapnel popping out on odd occasions.”
“I have more titanium than bone in my left arm now, and my elbow is more a collection of plates and screws than an elbow,” Hoffmeister said.
He said he considers his rehabilitation ongoing because of slow nerve growth and recovery. He had a nerve transplant from his left leg and was initially hospitalized for two months. He then received home health care for an additional two months, during which his brigade commander in Iraq called and asked him to take over the brigade’s rear detachment.
“He stated to me very simply that he figured, ‘Anyone with two arms is still only half as good as Hoffmeister with one arm, so would [you] mind taking command of the brigade rear detachment?’” Hoffmeister said. “How do you say no to a question like that?
“So after a brief pity party, I got back to work and assumed command of the brigade rear detachment [with] the catheter line still in my arm [and] oxycodone and Lyrica tempering the pain,” he added. “It was a godsend.”
The duties gave him a purpose and a focus, and he could relate to the large population of wounded in the brigade’s rear detachment, he said. It kept him looking beyond his personal obstacles and moving forward.
Hoffmeister’s injury has forced him to figure out how to modify equipment so he can return to activities he enjoyed before his injury. For instance, all the gears that once resided on the left side of his bike have found a new home on the right. He also uses a padded glove and a wrist strap on his left hand to compensate for hypersensitivity and reduced grip strength.
His injuries also affected his climbing techniques. “It’s forcing me to learn how to become a much more technically adept climber, as I can’t rely on the strength or dexterity of my left arm or hand,” he said. “So my lower body technique and positioning must change to reduce the strain and extend my endurance.”
The injury, which causes constant pain, has provided Hoffmeister with a new perspective on life, as well.
“I embrace life’s experiences far more than in the past because I am far more aware of the blessings that each new day brings,” he said. “I’ve also realized that the combined virtue of my experiences being severely wounded and my rank and position have enabled me to assist other wounded warriors experiencing similar challenges.
“I feel a personal responsibility to assist, motivate or support my fellow wounded warriors in any way that I can,” he added.
When asked what has been his greatest triumph since being injured, he’s hesitant to provide a concrete answer, mainly because he’s hoping that answer will change in a few weeks.
“I’ll tell you after the climb!” he said.
Hoffmeister has served on active duty since graduating from West Point 17 years ago. He’s the chief engineer for Alaskan Command/Joint Task Force Alaska at Elmendorf Air Force Base and lives in Eagle River, Alaska, with his wife, Gayle, and two Jack Russell terriers, Max and Bailey.
Gayle also will make the climb with the Operation Denali team as a peer mentor. The group set out for base camp on June 1 and expects to complete their trek by June 22.