A guest blog by Kilimanjaro Warriors’ founder, Steve Connolly
As we are about to embark on our journey to summit Africa’s highest mountain, I wanted to explain what this journey means to me and why I wanted to begin a project like this. I want this project to be about our team, but I think a little bit of my story and background will provide great insight to the meaning behind this adventure.
The beginning of this project really started in 1991 when I was part of a small group of Air Force personnel attached to an army unit, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. I was an Air Force Captain and a fighter pilot, but assigned to ground duty for the duration of Operation Desert Storm. I had three other Air Force personnel with me, Sergeants Jim Long, Steve Shores and JB Bruening. Our job was to call in air strikes during battle. Our secondary task was to help navigate, as we had the only GPS unit around—and it was still experimental! My call sign was Wench 20, and I had two other good pilot friends nearby in attached units, Captains Kenneth “Vinnie” Godfrey and Mark “Cash” Register. We leaned on each other a lot during nearly six-months of deployment.
During the war, the Wench 20 unit controlled many airstrikes against numerous targets at airfields we attacked. We also coordinated the destruction of an Iraqi artillery unit that was firing on the 24th Infantry Division. Those guys probably never knew what we did, but we were happy to help them out of some hot water. Besides the airstrikes we coordinated and the navigation assistance we provided, we also got a very up close and personal view of the battle. We saw a lot of Iraqis die, and when the time came, we even helped save the lives of two of the six Iraqi prisoners we captured. One of them had his leg shot off and we had to wrap a tourniquet around it to save his life. We coordinated the evacuation of the two severely wounded Iraqi soldiers by helicopter so they could be treated at a U.S. hospital. I always wondered what became of them and what their lives would be like, one as an amputee in Iraq, if they survived.
During one battle, I found myself in a tough situation as we were being shot at by the Iraqi Republican Guard. I was helped tremendously by another Forward Air Controller in an OA-10 named Quentin “Q-tip” Rideout. He was also avoiding bullets and low on gas, but he wouldn’t leave my area until he knew I was safe. As people in combat know, you always fight for your buddies. Q-tip did exactly that for me and I am forever grateful.
In the ground sector near to where Q-tip helped me was another OA-10 pilot, Capt. Patrick “Oly” Olson. He was assisting a ground unit that was also under attack, but he was up against intense fire. Unfortunately, his airplane received major damage and as he was trying to return to base, he crashed and died. Oly always flew with an American flag in the cockpit–he was a true patriot and a hero and a dear friend of mine.
Another pilot and friend from my squadron, Jeff Fox, got shot down and became a prisoner of war for several weeks. He was badly injured and abused, but he survived.
In combat we saw a lot. Much more than most people realize. At home, families were worried and, rightfully, feared the worst. My squadron friend Curt Schumacher had the dreadful duty of relaying bad news to one young wife, Julie Olson. He arrived to her house in the middle of the night to inform her that her husband, Oly, would never be coming home. This was just another difficult aspect of the military. There is a lot that comes with signing up to defend your country.
Over the years, I have consistently thought about my time in Desert Storm and how the military has been involved in overseas conflicts since then. I never deployed again in combat, but as I reflected on my experiences, I knew I wanted to help those who continued to serve.
This expedition is about thanking those who signed up to serve and have, in turn, experienced some hardships along the way. It’s also about making our country aware that the United States military is still overseas, fulfilling their duties and defending our freedoms, regardless of the consequences they may face. Finally, it is about the human spirit. As you follow our progress I hope you will see what our unbelievable veterans can accomplish. They have suffered some tough afflictions, but have pushed themselves to be ready for this monumental expedition!
As I make the climb I will carry a few mementos along with me:
I will carry dirt from the grave of my parents’ good friend, Judie Kautz. Judie was a nurse, the daughter of a U.S. Army Doctor and the wife of a career U.S. Air Force Officer. With those influences in her life, she was very patriotic and supportive of our servicemen who have been injured while defending our country. I will carry the dirt from her grave to the summit to honor her and all the other military spouses (my wife, my mother, my sister and my sister-in-law included) who also serve our country through their marriage.
I will carry a U.S. flag. This flag is in honor of Patrick “Oly” Olson and his wife, Julie. Patrick, like so many other U.S. soldiers, made the ultimate sacrifice to serve his country. I will never forget that! For the other veterans on our journey, the flag will also be a symbol to honor their comrades in arms who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
I will carry ten coins from a group of veterans who still give back to the military–the All Veteran Parachute Team. They go around the country providing disabled vets “therapy in the air” through tandem parachute jumps. They have found a great way to say thank you to our vets and remind them that what they did for our country matters. This team puts in unbelievable hours of volunteer work to make this happen and I am in awe of their dedication and support.
Finally, I will carry a two-pound rock, painted in honor of a group of people I volunteer with for a week every summer. The group is called El Tesoro de la Vida. It is a grief camp for children who have experienced the death of a loved one. The children gather for one week to participate in counseling, while also taking part in fun summer camp activities. The combination of being immersed with other children who have lost loved ones, receiving professional counseling and enjoying camp makes for an unforgettable week of healing. The rock that I will carry is to honor those adults who volunteer to put on this camp to make a difference in the lives of these young, grieving children. Some sign up to serve their country through the military, and some sign up to serve their communities through volunteer work. Both are important and I am honored that my daughter inspired me to join this group of outstanding people who really care about helping others.
Lastly, this journey turned into a traditional “Connolly adventure,” if you will. Without the help of my family, this project would not be such a success. My parents, Keith and Pat, were very instrumental in getting this project off the ground. My dad was a career Air Force fighter pilot and Brigadier General, and serving means a lot to both him and my mother. I cannot thank them enough for supporting and counseling me and raising money. Denise, my sister, was helpful in giving me advice, interviewing the climbing team, training with the team and pushing me when I needed it. Bill, my brother, quietly raised funds by selling tacos on Tuesdays at Randolph AFB. He not only raised funds, but he also raised awareness. My other sister, Christine, has juggled her work and a new baby while her husband, Bevan, works without pay on our expedition as our cameraman. My wife, Lisa, has also experienced the same juggling act, as I am constantly working on the details of the Kilimanjaro Warriors expedition–thank you for your patience, honey! She has also supported me and encouraged me every step of the way. My daughter, Erica, is my chief public relations person. She is responsible for our Facebook page, press releases and blog; she gets called on to do a lot… But if you ever see typos, I probably posted without her permission! My son, Michael, is at college but makes time to update Twitter. And finally, my other son Nicholas, the only child who still lives at home, has helped me with any and everything that comes up. Nicholas also designed our website.
We have had many donors who want to remain anonymous, many people who have given whatever they could spare to support us, and many great corporate and other non- profit organizations donate very large amounts of money or resources. I really want to say THANK YOU to you all. Finally, to all my other friends and relatives who have given me advice and support during the last year, I thank you, too. You all will be with me as I climb!
Now the culmination of over a year of planning and dreaming has come to an end and we are about to embark on our journey. As I have found through our preparation over the last year, we have a stellar team. We also have great wingman climbers joining us: our physical therapist, Mark Heniser; our cameraman, Bevan Bell; Sarah’s husband, Joe Evans; and Orlando’s wife, Maria Gill. Please follow our progress on this blog and on our Facebook page. I am honored to hike with these veterans who inspire me to go on and live each day to the fullest, just as they do. They will have difficult days and hard times ahead on our climb and in life, but I know they will bounce back with unbelievable determination, which makes it a privilege for me to be around them.
Finally, the most important reason for this expedition is simply the six veterans listed below. They have already achieved so much and I’m thrilled that Kilimanjaro will be their next accomplishment! All strangers to me just a year ago, I feel extremely lucky to call them my friends and fellow veterans.
As a team, we are ready for this challenge and now it’s time to go conquer one of the world’s great seven summits!