Wounded Veteran Hopes to Inspire Others in Mountain Quest
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 3, 2009 The loss of his right arm while serving in Iraq made something as simple as eating a challenge for retired Marine Capt. Jonathan F. Kuniholm, who recently set out with three other wounded veterans to conquer Mount McKinley, also known as “Denali” because it’s located in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Reserve.
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 -- all wounded veterans -- are attempting to summit North America's highest peak, June 1, 2009. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“Following the loss of my right arm in Iraq on New Year’s Day 2005, the most basic of things became a challenge -- writing my name, putting on a pair of pants in the morning, tying my shoes, cutting a steak,” he said. “After putting up a ceiling fan that spring with my 5-year-old son, I realized that as long as I was patient enough, I could do whatever I wanted.”
By the end of that year, Kuniholm had resumed many of the things he’d done before his injury, though he finds some activities difficult enough that he doesn’t pursue them much, including playing the guitar or sports with his son.
In fact, it’s affected just about every other area of his life as well.
“All of it is impacted in some way, from the moment I get up in the morning,” he said. “I can do many things, … and many take much longer or I do inexpertly.”
Kuniholm was dismounted from a riverine craft on the shore of the Euphrates River south of Haditha, Iraq, when insurgents used a homemade bomb to initiate what he described as a sophisticated ambush on the platoon. The platoon, which was not his assigned unit, handled the ambush effectively, but three servicemembers suffered serious injuries and one was killed. One sailor, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Juan Rubio, earned a Silver Star during the engagement.
Kuniholm had played his guitar the night before in a talent show. He described himself as pretty rusty, since he hadn’t played in months. In retrospect, he said, it was interesting, considering what would happen the next day.
“It took about a year before I was done with surgeries, fitted with prostheses, and ready to get back to my life,” Kuniholm said. “Prosthetic arms are, as I discovered, still very much a work in progress, and if you want to call that part of my rehabilitation, my work to improve prosthetic arms continues.”
This, he said, has become his new calling in life. Realizing the deficiencies in prosthetic arms, he began working as an engineer on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 program. He also started Open Prosthetics Project, a nonprofit group, to further innovations in arm prosthetics.
“While my professional goal is to improve the technology amputees all over the world use to replace their arms, I have a new personal goal as well,” Kuniholm said.
Human beings are incredibly resilient and capable of nearly anything they set their minds to, he said.
“People with disabilities have a greater set of challenges, and while the road may be longer and harder, [we] have just as few limits to what we can achieve,” he said. “Climbing Denali is a task that many able-bodied folks would never undertake. By being part of a team tackling that task while sharing the additional challenges of disability, I hope to inspire others with similar challenges.
“I hope as well to remove the limits placed on their expectations of what they can achieve,” he added. “This won’t make getting dressed, eating, or anything else any easier, but it’s my hope that it will make any challenge seem possible and less of a chore to undertake.”
Kuniholm already has started to set an example for others who have disabilities and big dreams.
With the help of his flight instructor, he recently renewed his pilot’s license and has returned to flying as a private pilot. Earning a private pilot’s license is possible for those with disabilities who have never flown before, he said.
The successes occasionally are tempered by the public’s reaction, which he said his cousin likened to being out and about with a pregnant woman.
“It’s undeniable [that I’m missing an arm], and many people assume that this fact means you want to talk about it,” Kuniholm said. “As you might imagine, being involved in prosthetic arm research, I’ll always talk about prosthetic arms, but I have had that conversation before, and sometimes it’s nice to talk about something else.”
Kuniholm lives in Durham, N.C., with his wife, Michele, and son, Sam, 7. He served as the engineer officer and platoon commander of the 2nd Platoon, 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, attached to the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines, in Iraq’s Anbar province from Aug. 17, 2004, until his injury.
He is part of a seven-member team -- four wounded veterans, two mentors and one guide – whose attempt to reach North America’s highest peak began this week.