2018 USX Denali Expedition: Through the Fog, Part 2


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 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. This team includes MSG Scott Schissel, U.S. Army (Ret.). 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


"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