A West Point graduate who went to high school in Georgia is set to begin climbing to the peak of Mount Everest, all while breaking some records and raising awareness for soldiers' mental health.
Harold Earls developed the idea of the veteran U.S. Expeditions and Explorations (USX) nonprofit to shed light on a stigma about post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide with soldiers. By guiding veterans in their transition back to civilian life through challenging expeditions to inspire camaraderie and purpose, he is raising awareness about the issue.
"Some reports show that 20 percent of our veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder," Earls said.
The second lieutenant said the idea of USX came to him while he was a cadet in the U.S. Military Academy.
"In the past five years, more U.S. soldiers have died from suicide than enemy attacks in both Iraq and Afghanistan," Earls said. "We wanted to do more than bring awareness to PTSD.
"We wanted to do something about it by creating expeditions that mirror being part of a mission-oriented unit and team in combat. Mount Everest is just the beginning."
The 2011 West Forsyth High School graduate and two others began their 29,029-foot ascent Thursday.
Earls, an active-duty infantry basic officer assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart in Georgia, will be joined in the climb by 1st Lt. Elyse Ping Medvigy, an active-duty field artillery officer assigned to the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, and retired Staff Sgt. Chad Jukes.
If successful, it will be the first time an active duty male and female soldier and combat-wounded military veteran summit Mount Everest.
"Iraq was an extremely hostile and stressful environment, and many of us were affected by PTSD as a result," Jukes said. "This Everest climbing expedition not only gives me a renewed purpose and mission, but it allows me to overcome a stigma that many veterans battle."
Jukes lost his right leg while serving as the lead gun truck commander on a supply convoy in northern Iraq.
"I want to show people that, yes, I have one leg. Yes, I have a brain injury. Yes, I have post-traumatic stress syndrome," he said. "But, no, I'm not weak, and I'm stronger than you think. I can climb this mountain, and I can conquer this syndrome, too."
Medvigy is the first female fire support officer in the Army to deploy with a light infantry unit.
Earls said Jukes and Medvigy have extensive mountaineering experience on major summits. He started climbing last fall when the team began training on Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Ground support for the team includes: Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett, USX co-founder, military-liaison, team mentor and Purple Heart recipient; 1st Lt. Connor Love, USX CFO and an active-duty cavalry officer stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia; and Capt. Matt Hickey, an active-duty infantry platoon leader who has served several deployments in Afghanistan and led the climbing team in their training expedition at Mount Rainier.
"When soldiers bond together we can conquer anything, whether it be Mount Everest, PTSD or even suicide," said Burnett, who survived a record of more than 30 improvised explosive device attacks in the Army. "Although I'm not an expert in PTSD, I'm a survivor who has struggled with regular thoughts of suicide.
"Key to my rehabilitation from this mental illness was having the support and love of friends and family, in addition to an outlet to reduce my stress and anxiety through organized Army sports."
This inaugural mission to climb to the top of the tallest mountain in the world has already caught the attention of Sebastian Junger, an author, journalist, director and producer whose resume includes combat documentaries "Restrepo" and "Korengal" and New York Times best-selling book-turned-movie "The Perfect Storm."
Earls said he and his crew will follow the USX team to produce a documentary, with more than half of the net proceeds going directly to veterans and soldiers struggling with PTSD and suicidal thoughts.