Without his eyesight or experience, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Kevin Jackson said he would be damned if he didn’t climb Mount Yonah in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
“I couldn’t give up,” the rookie rock climber said. “I said to myself, ‘All of those damn Army guys down there. If an old, blind 56-year-old Marine gives up, I’ll be the laughingstock of North America.’”
But no one laughed when Jackson summited the mountain between Cleveland and Helen.
“I sweated like a pig, but I tell you what, it was worth it,” he said.
Jackson was among a handful of veterans who experienced Army Ranger Training Camp last week at Camp Frank D. Merrill in Dahlonega. The six veterans, who are blind and served with the Marine Corps, Army and Army National Guard, endured mountaineering challenges, including climbing the rock face and rappelling.
For fellow Marine Joe Burns, it marked a return to some of the toughest training he had ever endured. Burns came to Ranger school 47 years ago before serving in the Vietnam War, where a land mine caused him to lose his eyesight. Now, the self-proclaimed “oldest man on the hill” at 71 spent the day “pushing myself to the limit,” he said.
“I don’t recognize anything except for the rock face today ... just by the texture and the handholds. It was pretty nostalgic,” Burns said. “I was remembering a lot of the close friends I met here and wondering what they’re up to now.”
The veterans climbed the mountain and rappelled down it thanks to Operation Peer Support, which sponsors the training. Blinded Veterans Association National Sergeant-at-Arms Danny Wallace said OPS began to support blinded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan but has expanded to include all veterans.
“Whether you’re 70 or 21, if you’re new to being blind and you’re a veteran, this is what OPS should be doing,” said Wallace, who was wounded in 2003 by a car bomb. “We should be supporting our peers and assisting them in becoming more accustomed to being a blinded veteran.”
Wallace recently went to Capitol Hill to lobby for $5 million from the Department of Defense for vision research. Through the program, the sergeant-at-arms and blinded veterans hope to show the Ranger community “what we’re capable of.”
“We don’t have to sit in a chair and slowly rot away. Just because we can’t see doesn’t mean we can’t go out and do stuff,” Wallace said. “Now, we might not be driving racecars, but other than that we can do just about anything else.”
Since the end of their active service, the program participants have enrolled in different hobbies. Some return to a hobby or work like Army National Guard veteran Mark Wilson, who began woodworking.
Others look to an activity involving animals. Out of the blue, Adam Rowland asked his wife to find a horse therapy program after he returned in 2013 with his injuries.
“I didn’t really know what made me say it or think it,” he said.
Growing up watching westerns on his grandpa’s lap, Rowland had rarely ridden a horse before therapy. A few years later, the Army veteran is an award-winning rodeo rider.
“I never pictured myself living the cowboy lifestyle,” he said.
Finally, some seek adventures in the great outdoors. Fellow Army National Guard veteran Travis Fugate took to extreme sports following a severe injury in Iraq. He said the decade since his injury has been filled with adventures with OPS and on his own, including water sports. His love is apparent as a kayaking tattoo adorns his forearm.
Through these adventures, he said he has learned all things are possible without eyesight.
“You leave with a confidence, equal to or almost equal to the confidence you had as a soldier,” Fugate said.