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First active-duty U.S. soldiers successfully summit Mount Everest

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Mount Everest, the Earth's highest mountain, soars 29,029 feet.

Retired Staff Sgt. Chad Jukes, 2nd Lt. Harold Earls and Capt. Elyse Ping Medvigy reached the summit of Mount Everest on Tuesday, May 24.

Earls and Medvigy are the first active-duty U.S. soldiers to make the summit, and Jukes is the second combat-wounded veteran to do so. Together, they climbed for nonprofit organization U.S. Expeditions and Explorations (USX) to shed light on the uphill battle that veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts face each day.

Jukes, a single-leg amputee, was striving to be the first combat-wounded veteran to summit Everest. But he was surpassed last week by Marines Staff Sgt. Charlie Linville, whose right leg was amputated below the knee after an improvised explosive blast gravely injured his right foot in Afghanistan. Linville climbed with The Heroes Project, a veterans’ organization that leads expeditions with wounded veterans and active-duty service members. He tried to summit twice previously, in 2014 and 2015.

Linville and Jukes don’t know each other but were aware they were both eyeing the same goal due to media coverage. Both USX and The Heroes Project chose to summit Everest on the north side, which is less crowded but more technically challenging.

“The North Col head wall is a 1,000-feet-plus vertical ice wall with dangerous crevasses, steep pitches and dangerous séracs,” Earls said.

Before joining the Army, Jukes pursued rock climbing during high school. During his service, he was a lead gun truck commander on a supply convoy in northern Iraq when his vehicle was struck by an IED on December 17, 2006.

The blast shattered his heel bone and broke his femur. He contracted MRSA in the operating room and it destroyed the many bone fragments in his heel. But anyone who assumed that this would prevent the outdoor enthusiast from scaling a rock face again couldn’t be more wrong.

Jukes chose to have his right leg amputated below his knee. A customized prosthesis that could be modified to suit his active interests of climbing and biking gave him hope.

Although he battled waves of PTSD after losing his leg, Jukes found solace and relief through being in nature. Rather than be deterred by his amputation, he started climbing even more, even taking up ice climbing.

Inspired by the first blind man to summit Everest, Erik Weihenmayer, he reached out to the climber. Weihenmayer invited him to climb Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, Colorado. In the winter, the falls freeze over, forming 365 feet of demanding, steep, overhanging ice. They scaled it together in February 2009.

Jukes also connected with No Barriers USA, a nonprofit that “empowers people to break through barriers, find their inner purpose and contribute their very best to the world.” In 2010, Jukes, Weihenmayer and 10 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered the physical and emotional toll of war set out to climb Mount Lobuche, one of the tallest in the Himalayas. Their story was captured in the 2012 documentary “High Ground.”

Last year, No Barriers connected Jukes with USX, an organization with the initial goal of having the first active-duty male and female soldiers summit Mount Everest. Jukes agreed, eager to take on the challenge and represent his fellow combat-wounded veterans on the world’s highest peak. But he was also motivated by the chance to raise awareness for PTSD, which is an Everest of its own for those who live with it each day.

After climbing Everest, Jukes hopes to teach other people with physical disabilities how to climb because he loves being able to share the challenge of the experience with others.

“Over the past several weeks, our team has been presented with many unique challenges,” Jukes said. “Through teamwork and tenacity, we have been able to address and overcome every challenge we’ve faced.”

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