2018 USX Denali Expedition: Through the Fog (Part VI)

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Editor’s Note: The mission of the USX 2018 Denali Expedition is to gather research data to assist the science and medical communities in understanding how the human body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic systems change with acclimatization. This data will be harvested using Cardiac Insight’s wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors during a summit expedition of Denali, North America’s highest peak, by USX’s team of military members and veterans from May 14-June 5, 2018. The team includes U.S. Army veteran Adam Storck (pictured above at center). Here’s his story:

“So, what made you want to join the global death machine?”

This was a serious question that a friend of mine asked me after I signed up to join the Army.

For the first few months after starting ROTC, this was a common experience – the aversion, the questioning, the arguments for why I shouldn’t. I didn’t have productive conversations with my mom for multiple years; they inevitably devolved into her trying to convince me to leave while I could. To those I grew up with, this is probably not a surprising revelation. Seattle in the mid-2000s was a hotbed of antiwar sentiment, complete with demonstrations and vitriol. And full disclosure, there was a time that I was lock step alongside them; I walked out of class in 2003 to protest the Iraq invasion, only to find myself with a possibility of going there to fight not 5 years later. The irony of that is not lost on me, though I never did deploy to Iraq in the end. Part of me is still a little disappointed in the universe for missing that chance.

Eventually, my close friends – and even my mom – came to terms with me being in the military, though I’m sure that given the ability to choose, every one of them would have pulled me out the first chance they got. The reverberations continued to echo, though, in how I visualized my own identity, and how I related to some of the people I was closest to. I took on the mantle of the protector; I wasn’t able to express fears, doubts, or uncertainty with them. I had other outlets, don’t get me wrong, but they were newer friends; much of my foundational community was not a support structure for anything Army.

In gaining distance and reflecting, I don’t begrudge any of them for how they felt. The military, for those who lack close personal ties to it, can be ineffable. The prevailing knowledge of what it means to be a soldier comes from popular media, and even if you take the best of what Hollywood has to offer, it’s still a story of explosions, death, and destruction. Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, Band of Brothers. These count among the most highly regarded depictions of war, and they portray bravery and exceptional performance in the worst of conditions, but are not particularly representative of my experience in Afghanistan – or of my experience in the Army as a whole. Certainly, there are those for whom Iraq and Afghanistan were far more kinetic, who dealt with violence up close and personal on a daily basis. But I would venture to say that was not the prevailing reality for most. My reality was far more dominated by the need to creatively solve inherently unsolvable problems in an uncertain and dynamic environment. It was lots of planning, but never being able to count on following the plan to the letter. It was adjusting on the fly to different pressures, with the only metric of success our accomplishment of the mission’s intent. It was building interpersonal ties based on immovable trust that those around you have your back. And yes, sometimes it was reacting to explosions, death, and destruction in constructive ways, but for me this wasn’t the proximate concern on most days.

Explaining this to people who have no experience with the military can be challenging. As far as I was concerned, my foundational community – seized by fear over my mortality – could only superficially engage with anything beyond the popular imagination of war, so I chose not to try to engage deeper with most of them. This turned out to be a mistake on my part, but fortunately it hasn’t critically hindered any of my relationships.

As I transitioned back to being fully civilian, this problem became more urgent to understand how to address. Employers who fundamentally lack an understanding of the roles and responsibilities people undertake while in the military will forgo interviewing candidates that can bring real value – and many who leave the military are not given the tools to translate their experience into language that employers understand. More broadly, this is a reflection of the simplistic interaction that many have with the military. Either we are broken and damaged from war, in need of pity, or we are held up on high, put on a pedestal as exalted members of society. The problem is that neither picture is complete.

Yes, many veterans have battle scars from all manner of trauma. We also have resiliency cultivated through training, camaraderie, and a foundational belief that we can – and will – overcome the uncertainty of now.

And yes, we signed up in full knowledge that we might need to sacrifice our lives, ostensibly to protect the American ideals (even if recent history has largely proved this to be a delusion). We also don’t have a monopoly on sacrifice in the name of service – teachers, firefighters, and people who work in non-profits, among others, also routinely put the needs of society before their own. Every human will at some point put the needs of someone else before our own. Soldiers are not unique in that, even if our method of service is different in form and in immediate mortal peril.

Simplifying veterans to either of these two extremes also creates an unhealthy and dangerous distance between us and everyone else in society. We need neither pity nor exaltation. We need neither feelings of inadequacy nor of exceptionalism. We are not in need of a savior or entitled to life on a silver platter.

As the veteran community, we need to become much more deliberate about integrating ourselves back into the civilian world we all (briefly) left behind during our time in uniform. We need to help people see the valuable skills and attributes we carry with us, leaving behind the feelings of entitlement and contempt so pervasive in our community, because we do still have to prove ourselves just like everyone else.

Earlier this month, I was both thrilled and entirely unsurprised when it came out that the pilot who safely guided Southwest 1380 to the ground after the fuselage was ripped open by an engine explosion was a veteran. I doubt I was the only veteran who felt this way. Reports talked about how in control she seemed, even among the chaos. The focused calm in uncertainty is a benchmark of the veteran, and we should be talking more about that – not because her service made her implicitly better than others, but because her service gave her the tools to enable exceptional, and in this case, life-saving performance.

This is part of the reason I think it’s so essential to shout from the rooftops about things like the USX Denali expedition. This is a group of veterans, coming together to plan and execute an exceptionally complex and challenging task requiring endurance, drive, and management of uncomfortable, dangerous, and stressful situations. This all must be accomplished with a team, where each individual has their own strengths and weaknesses, their own tolerance for risk, their own goals for the climb, and their own definition of success. This represents a showcase of the experience and skills that we as veterans all built during our time in service – skills that make us exceptionally well-suited to working in teams to define and accomplish ambitious goals, to rapidly understand and react in our environment, and to do so with a sense of responsibility to ourselves and the team to put the shared goal first.

Adam Storck, 31, is a U.S. Army veteran (Captain) and Head of Devices for M-KOPA Solar, overseeing new product development, delivery, and testing. Storck is from Seattle and resides in London and Nairobi, Kenya. He is a graduate of Seattle’s Garfield High School (2005), UNC-Chapel Hill (2009), Oxford University (2016), and a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan (2010-2011, 2013).

2018 USX Denali Expedition: Through the Fog (Part V)

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Editor’s Note: The mission of the USX 2018 Denali Expedition is to gather research data to assist the science and medical communities in understanding how the human body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic systems change with acclimatization. This data will be harvested using Cardiac Insight’s wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors during a summit expedition of Denali, North America’s highest peak, by USX’s team of military members and veterans from May 14-June 5, 2018. The team includes U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Nicklas Anthony. Here’s his story:

As I started to write this, I glanced at my watch. Only a few short hours before I depart for our summit attempt on Denali. And then my thoughts began to drift…

“Yeah, you’re a real go-getter.”

The sarcasm smeared in my mind deeper than the concession grime and garbage juices that had once stained my shirt.

It was the height of the economic crisis, it was my graduation night, and I was working the only gig I could find to try and make ends meet. Working my way through college was not foreign to me. It’s how I afforded to eat, drink, and be merry while still managing to stack up about $30,000 in student loan debt. But now was different; I had responsibilities, I was graduating, and, as a pre-law major with no real-world experience, holding two jobs as an office clerk and as a part-time janitor for an events center was the best I could do, given the economic circumstances.

I had been a good student. Having studied law in Europe, mastered a foreign language, and maintained a respectable GPA throughout my college career, I was ready for what was promised to come next: a stable job and the start of a career as an information worker. However, reality soon set in, and brutal economics glared at me, emotionlessly.

I lost the office clerk gig just before graduation. I practically begged for additional shifts to make rent. On my graduation night, I stared down on my graduating class, dropping balloons on their celebration, and trying to stay in the shadows so nobody would recognize the guy from Ancient Philosophy class now covered in garbage juices. After a few weeks, the ends were once again too far apart to be met. I moved into my car and crashed on couches for the next 6 months. A veritable homeless male, I was a statistic.

In high-school, I had wanted to become a Marine Officer. Military service was part of my family tradition and I had initially hoped to graduate law school and practice military law as a Judge Advocate. Perhaps I had watched A Few Good Men a few too many times. When I graduated college, I was in terrible physical condition. Eating top ramen and spending my time in the library or office clerking was not exactly the activities that shape a future Marine Officer.

When I first approached my “friends” about pursuing the military option, I was met with expressions of incredulity, laughter, and — my favorite — “Yeah, you’re a real go-getter.”

At that point, I recognized my life was being defined by the circumstances and adversities I found myself in. My circumstances were essentially controlling me. I bucked.

I took the first step by visiting the Marine Corps officer selection team near my university. After a few minutes in the office, Sgt. Dwayne Tanksley (aka “Tank”) introduced himself to me. We talked for a couple of hours.

For the next 12 months, I worked my ass off. I quit smoking and started to pay close attention to my physical fitness. All the while, those words ringing in my head, an ever piercing screech that echoed and motivated … a real go getter, huh? Whatever.

As I snap back to the present, I consider where I am now seven years later, relaxing after a day of work on my sofa in the home I recently purchased in Issaquah, Washington. In just a few hours, I’ll wake up to take on another seemingly insurmountable challenge. But whether we summit Denali or not is really inconsequential. This sport is about a process that is deeply personal.

And as I anticipate the labored zen of those moments moving up those icy slopes, I recognize an appointment with oblivion. An appointment that will send the noise of self-doubt, the fear of the unknown, and the ever-present "imposter syndrome" into a muted duffel dragging somewhere behind me.

I am certain that at some points during this climb, I will glance at my watch and, in those ephemeral moments of discomfort, chuckle to myself at the words inscribed on the back. I’d transcribe them for you here, but at this point, you already know what they are.

Capt. Nicklas Anthony, 33, is an active duty U.S. Marine Corps recruiting management officer and the Marketing & Communications Director for USX. Anthony is from Norman, OK, and currently resides in Issaquah, WA. He is a graduate of Fork Union Military Academy, Fork Union, VA (2003), and the University of Oklahoma (2010). In 2016, Anthony was nationally recognized and subsequently awarded by the Marine Corps for helping rescue an elderly veteran stranded on a Seattle-area mountain.

2018 USX Denali Expedition: Through the Fog (Part IV)

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Editor’s Note: The mission of the USX 2018 Denali Expedition is to gather research data to assist the science and medical communities in understanding how the human body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic systems change with acclimatization. This data will be harvested using Cardiac Insight’s wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors during a summit expedition of Denali, North America’s highest peak, by USX’s team of military members and veterans from May 14-June 5, 2018. The team includes Alaska Air National Guard Lt. Col. Ron Oliver (pictured at far right). Here’s his story:

I’ve been fortunate enough to have what most people would consider an incredible career in the military. I’m a former A-10 pilot and still am at heart. I currently fly a KC-135 with the Alaska Air National Guard. I’ve led Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) airmen in Iraq and Afghanistan and was a Detachment Commander for the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron at Fort Wainwright. I’ve always been surrounded by men and women who understand what brotherhood is all about. We deploy together, sleep in shitty tents or plywood B-huts together, and fight and sweat together. We’ve supported each other through any possible scenario that could be dreamed up and know there will always be someone there to back us up … until depression or anxiety takes over and you feel isolated.

On May 14, 2015, I lost a good friend, TACP, and member of my small detachment to suicide. I received the phone call at my desk. This experience taught me a great deal in the last three years about myself and my influence on others. Hopefully I can take this conversation away from what you’d expect to see — “the signs and symptoms of someone struggling with suicide” — and turn it into a way to ensure that you have a positive impact on the people with whom you interact. Chances are, even if you’ve been trained, you won’t recognize someone that’s struggling until you receive a phone call.

Our unit met together. We armchair quarterbacked, knew what to look for, and still no one had picked up on any signs. We went so far as to suppose that he knew what we knew, and did specific things to hide his intent. There were long term plans, future purchases being pre-arranged, and nothing that would indicate he planned to end his life. How can you combat what you can’t see?

After some soul searching and trying to figure out what I could do as a leader, it became obvious. The majority of people contemplating suicide have an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. Be there for the person you suspect. Even more importantly, be there for the person you don’t suspect. I resolved to make a conscious effort to have genuine and positive interactions with anyone I make contact with. “Hey man, what’s up?” with a quick head nod became “How are you today?” with a brief but not uncomfortable amount of eye contact. You’d be surprised at how many people respond with an actual answer versus the obligatory, “Pretty good,” and continue on their way.

Additionally, you can Do Something. Numerous studies show that physical activity effectively combats stress, depression, and anxiety. Working out with a friend or acquaintance fights isolation. I’m always in search of the next person to go with on a run, hike, ride, swim, etc. They may never take you up on the offer, but they’ll know that the offer stands.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out. If you know someone that is going through a rough time, have them over for dinner. Go grab a beer and have a genuine conversation. Be empathetic: try to understand their feelings rather than simply being sympathetic of their situation. Any or all of these actions could be the small act that helps someone get through another day.

I still struggle with knowing that I could very well have missed a subtle cry for help from a friend. I take solace in knowing that my future actions may prevent a future suicide and I’ll never know it.

Lt. Col. Ron Oliver, 41, is an active duty member of the Alaska Air National Guard and Director of Operations, 168th Air Refueling Squadron, 168th Wing, Fairbanks, AK. He is from Jacksonville, FL, and currently resides in North Pole, AK. Oliver is a graduate of Robert E. Lee High School, Jacksonville, FL (1994), and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (1998), and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) and Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan (2005, 2012-13). He is also a proud member of national veterans service organization Team RWB's Fairbanks, AK chapter.

2018 USX Denali Expedition: Through the Fog (Part III)

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Editor’s Note: The mission of the USX 2018 Denali Expedition is to gather research data to assist the science and medical communities in understanding how the human body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic systems change with acclimatization. This data will be harvested using Cardiac Insight’s wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors during a summit expedition of Denali, North America’s highest peak, by USX’s team of military members and veterans from May 14-June 5, 2018. The expedition team is led by Elyse Ping Medvigy, a prior active duty soldier who is currently a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Here’s her story:

The afternoon sun beat through the open window of my apartment, washing over the neat piles of down parkas and wool hats covering the living room rug. Summer was coming to Washington DC and already the last hint of cherry blossom fragrance faded from the breeze wafting through the apartment as the city warmed. Outside, the clatter of high heels on the sidewalk, colorful sundresses with dangerous hemlines, and gossip over the latest scandal in politics joined the cherry blossoms. I folded the last of my base layers, marveling at the paradox between careless chatter on a leisurely Saturday afternoon and the icy hell we were about to endure.

Denali is unforgiving, the “Great One” as she was dubbed by the first to lay eyes on her frozen slopes and bottomless crevasses, with craters that would later serve as the graves for those of us who lost the ‘Russian roulette’ that is mountaineering. Here, we let the mountains serve as our judge, our years of training and technical expertise no match for the fracture of a cornice or fall of a loaded slope. The deafening roar of an avalanche reinforces our transient status, a reminder that the human body is utterly vulnerable to the whims of these beasts. Yet every summer without fail, throngs of climbers leave the warm comfort of their family and friends for voluntary self-deprivation, the mesmerizing glory of a potential summit overpowering common sense.

Mountaineering is a sport of tremendous contradiction: the solace we find escaping our inner demons, the pain of frost-nipped fingers and aching feet, the adrenaline of treacherous ascents, the fear of facing our own mortality, and the pride of recounting our successes. But moreover, it is a sport of obstinacy, for in these austere conditions it is not our fellow climbers nor the mountains we are competing against but ourselves. The resilience necessary to endure weeks of isolation from all familiarity is consistently challenged by the physical and mental exhaustion that hours of steep pitches with a heavy pack and formidable conditions present on our wellbeing.

Mountaineers are truly resilient, and it is these qualities that so well parallel the attributes of our servicemen and women. The allure of accomplishing an endeavor far greater than ourselves is a pull to which mountaineers and our military can both attest. The unwavering loyalty to our team in getting all members up a peak or through a deployment safely while ignoring the ever-encroaching temptation to give up is what unifies the heart of both demographics. We embrace these challenges, for it is in our darkest hours that our struggle defines the pinnacle of our character.

If summer finds us battling the limits of the human body and challenging the uncertain nature of our existence, I hope our endeavors inspire. I hope the enigma surrounding the human pursuit toward the extraordinary entices each of us to look within ourselves and face the demons holding us back from our optimal wellbeing. As USX navigates the most inhospitable climates on earth, each of our team members carries a weight on our shoulders far greater than the burden in our packs. Each of us has been challenged and overcome immeasurable obstacles to our physical, mental, and spiritual prosperity that span past our military careers, and all of us have done so in relative silence. ‘Through the fog,’ a clarity to our own suffering can be reached, a journey towards awareness not obtainable without the self-deprivation of scaling the highest mountain in North America.

2018 USX Denali Expedition: Through the Fog (Part II)

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Editor’s Note: The mission of the USX 2018 Denali Expedition is to gather research data to assist the science and medical communities in understanding how the human body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic systems change with acclimatization. This data will be harvested using Cardiac Insight’s wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) devices during a summit expedition of Denali, North America’s highest peak, by USX’s team of military members and veterans from May 14-June 5, 2018. Our expedition team includes Scott Schissel, a retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant from Puyallup, Washington. Here’s his story:

I’m often asked why I joined the Army, and then why as a Military Policeman. I couldn’t begin to hazard a guess until further down the line in my 24-year career.

Ten years in and serving as a Drill Sergeant, I realized the true reason. I’m a helper, someone who gives a crap about others and is willing to give up my time to make sure they succeed.

Having been bullied as a kid, I saw this same fear in trainees’ eyes as they faced some of the most difficult times in their lives. They were confronted with being away from home for the first time, facing daunting tasks and more physical training then they had ever performed. Their mounting stress was evident. By no means was I a pushover Drill Sergeant, but I had learned early on in my Army career that you can be tough as nails and still give a shit about the people surrounding you day in and day out. As a leader and mentor, this helped me strike a balance between being hard and fair.

The bullying I experienced at such a young age taught me the importance of compassion and empathy for others. Since I endured this and was able to recover, my ability to recognize and react to others’ mental and emotional states served me well as a Drill Sergeant. I carried this empathy throughout my military service and, today, into my role as a Park Ranger.

I’m sure I carry a few emotional scars from being bullied time and time again. Not so much that stops me in my tracks, but enough to remind me that everyone is not the same, as strong or weak as you think.

Post-service, I often think back to the way I handled combat and those I encounter who are returning from the same situation: the before, during, and after. I don’t have nightmares or strong reactions to sights, smells, and sounds. I’m glad that I developed compassion and empathy through being bullied. I’ve tried my utmost to use this to help others in need and, dependent on the circumstances, with a soft or heavy hand.

Many service members suffer from mental and emotional ailments beyond PTSD. Some of these challenges are known, others aren’t. Some recognize what they’re going through and seek help, but more often than not, they don’t. There’s a chasm between what is happening and what we choose to accept is going on. I don't think most have turned their backs on people suffering from mental and emotional illness. Many seem to choose, sadly, to ignore it.

USX’s upcoming research expedition to summit Denali, Alaska, will be an extremely stressful event for all of our team members who are involved. There are a lot of knowns but also many unknowns. Our focus on weather and terrain will inform both our preparation and the actual climb, and yet, self-confidence and doubt will coincide every step of the way. The expedition will be tough and we’ll be cold, tired, and hungry. In our attempt to summit its peak, we’ll each pay a physical and mental toll.  This summit is not guaranteed. At times, we won’t be able to see where we’re going. But we’ll trust in ourselves, each other, and we’ll move forward together: through the snow, through the wind, and through the fog.

2018 USX Denali Expedition - Through the Fog

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"I'm excited that USX is able to provide an elite team of Veterans with an opportunity to conduct adventurous research in such a beautiful yet austere environment in Alaska. The scientific research connected to all USX missions form a common goal for teams to achieve something larger than self. Denali is an extension of that tradition and I look forward to following the adventure!"

  -Harold Earls IV, Founder, USX

As our Veterans deploy to austere regions throughout the globe (including those at challenging altitudes), understanding the effects of decreased oxygen on the two divisions of the autonomic nervous system are imperative to troop readiness and recovery.  Gathering raw data in alpine environments is challenging and dangerous if not conducted by experienced mountaineers comfortable at extreme altitude. 

The 2018 USX Denali Expedition brings together a team of Veterans committed to using their talent as accomplished mountaineers to gather scientific data for the Veteran community. 

The mission of the 2018 USX Denali Expedition is to assist scientists in understanding how sympathetic and parasympathetic systems in the body change with acclimatization by using state-of-the-art EKG technology to harvest data from a summit expedition. The parasympathetic nervous system regulates the body’s unconscious activities while the sympathetic nervous system, better known as our ‘fight or flight’ response, can accelerate heart rate, constrict blood vessels, raise blood pressure, and numerous other stimulations vital to making us effective warriors. 

The data collected from our expedition will further the development of research in a critical area.

At USX, we believe that our research furthers science and has tangible impacts on our community. We also understand that Veterans are drawn to service for the intangible fulfillment it brings to their lives.  For the 2018 USX Denali Expedition, we have partnered with Team Red, White & Blue to help enrich the lives of our Veterans by connecting them to physical and social activities. 

We are committed to connecting this research initiative with a narrative that benefits other elements of the Veteran experience.

Each year countless Veterans struggle with the hardships inherent in being a service member in the US Military.  Epidemics of PTSD and Veteran suicide have remained the centerpiece of media attention, but lesser discussed issues of Veteran underemployment, homelessness, and residual, service-connected depression remain enduring issues many service members continually face.  Each of us has experienced tremendous pressure and the expectation to confront our challenges with quiet resolve and grit. Though our Veterans community benefited from the growing awareness of these issues, the public focus has been little more than 'problem admiration.'

The message of the 2018 USX Denali Expedition shifts the focus from the macro to the micro; from the aggregate to the individual.

This shift is a stark change in the mindset of our institution, which seeks to remove the “I” from the equation the first day we report for duty.  We will use the power of individual expedition member stories and introduce a framework for devising new methods for nurturing optimal mental health. Through our own personal experiences, we will demonstrate the cycle of struggle, release, and recovery to provide our community with the inspiration needed to tip the scales, becoming the catalyst for change.

During the expedition, our climbers will deliver personal narratives we believe will help change the outcome of many Veterans struggling with similar adversity.

In an age where so much emphasis is put towards “raising” or “generating" awareness for the same few Veteran-related issues, we must move past this phase towards a call to action and a break in the cycle.

We seek to shift the paradigm by continuing our track record of taking action to demonstrate to our community and nation that we can, and will, overcome immense challenges, both seen and unseen, to further science and continue the military tradition of camaraderie and belonging.

The theme for our Denali Expedition is “Through the Fog”. Throughout the expedition process, we will learn about each individual member of the team, paying close attention to the remarkable resilience each has faced through their own internal battles.

We will examine the steps each took to make powerful changes in their own lives and the resilience that led each to define themselves by their resolve to overcome adversity.

We’ll hear from members who have been faced with a crossroads in how to cope with service-related depression, loss, in both military and civilian environments. Our focus will be on their individual challenges: the steps each took to change or re-vector themselves with immersive, positive activities that filled the experience gap or built a bridge to connect to an optimal state of mental health. 

The expedition will be an exciting and challenging adventure, and we hope you will follow our journey!

 

-Team USX