On November 6, 2004, Lieutenant DJ Skelton suffered an injury that would later earn him the headline, “the Army’s most seriously wounded soldier to return to combat command”—which he did in 2011 to fight with his troops as Captain.
“My left arm was destroyed, but my hand was intact. I have no bone between my hand and elbow. My stomach and chest were split open where shrapnel and AK-47 rounds had shredded. My right leg had a fist-sized hole through the lower portion. All the bone was missing from my foot to my knee,” Skelton reports in a 2011 interview with ABC News.
The U.S. Army veteran co-founded Paradox Sports in 2007 along with Malcolm Daly—below the knee amputee since 1999—and professional climber Timmy O’Neill, whose brother, Sean, has been a T-12 paraplegic for over 20 years. Their mission statement was simple: to improve lives by creating physical adaptive sport communities to inspire. What they’ve accomplished since can be called anything but simple.
The founders help those facing physical disabilities define their own normal by fostering a community of likeminded and bodied individuals, bringing them together through outdoor sport. From quadriplegics to the vision impaired to veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, Paradox Sports sponsors incredible rock and ice climbs, backpacking, stand-up Paddle boarding, whitewater rafting trips and clinics that redefine “impaired.”
The first veterans-only trip fell on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Chad Jukes, Nico Maroulis and Andrew Sullens conquered Grand Teton following the lead of guide, fellow veteran and amputee Mike Kirby.
“One of the greatest things about our veterans trips is that the guides are veterans themselves,” notes Sidni Giordano of Paradox Sports.
Thirty vets summited Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome the following year, just one of three veterans-only trips Paradox hosted last year. The organization has set plans to repeat trips to Mount Ranier, Yosemite and Grand Tetons again in 2014, and added backpacking and white water rafting excursions to this year’s agenda.
In a cliff-side interview with NPR, Skelton described his “rather quick recovery” in Walter Reed Hospital as the catapult for his desire to figure out how to get back to the things he loved growing up. The active duty Major compares the trust a climber has for his belayer as the same kind of trust experienced between soldiers in a battle: “When you rely on someone for your life, it creates a very unique bond.”
In the same interview, Andrew Sullens adjusts his prosthetic leg while hovering on the side of Yosemite’s Half Dome.
“Climbing is a series of problems,” he says, “it’s similar to those constant series of challenges those with disabilities face.”
“A constant nerve check,” is how Sullens describes his own experience climbing as an amputee. “It’s nothing like trusting your own bone and muscle.”
Nerves aside, Sullen’s outlook is the same from battlefield to rock face: “You can’t choose how you’re going to go, but you can choose how you’re going to live.”