Local soldier stands tall on top of the world

By Andrea Camarena
Special to the Sun-Gazette

Bryan Wagner refuses to be disabled and lives by his own coined slogan: “You can’t let something little like losing a limb stand in the way of awesomeness.”

The 25-year-old Lemon Cove native suffered an injury while serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army that eventually cost him his right leg. While surgery after surgery left Wagner rehabbing for two years, he is now more active than most fully capable people his age.

The wise-cracking, challenge seeker stood atop the tallest free-standing mountain in the world last week and watched the sunrise.

“The sun came up as we reached the summit and there we were looking down over Africa,” Wagner said of his climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. “We did something most people can’t do.”

Wagner was part of Team Hard Target, a group of four wounded veterans and three NFL stars who tackled a 46-hour hike over seven days to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. The summit of the mountain stands at 19,340 feet. It is the fourth-highest peak in the world and is the tallest point in Africa.

The climb was sponsored by Wounded Warriors Project, a non-profit organization whose mission is to honor and empower wounded warriors.

Wagner has a similar mission. He hopes his attitude toward his “disability” will infect other injured soldiers.

“I really want people to see that regardless of what life throws at you, you keep charging forward,” Wagner said after his return from Africa. “Dude, life’s not over, you have to get on with it. People make too many excuses in life.”

He proved that charging forward pays off.

“Before my injury, I was active, but never did anything physically challenging,” Wagner said after his return from Africa. “Before, I would have thought, ‘Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro? That sucks, why would I want to do that?’ Now I do it because I can. Disability is only a state of mind. You can’t let something small like losing a limb stop you from doing what you want to do. There are no excuses.”

Wagner was a specialist in the 529th MP Company when he was deployed to Iraq in October 2007. At 11:57 a.m. on Dec. 17, he was riding as a gunner on the lead humvee in a convoy transporting a battalion sergeant when it was hit by two Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). He injured his leg and it caught on fire during the blast. He came back to the U.S. and went through 27 surgeries before opting to have his right leg amputated below the knee. Following the surgery, he rehabbed for two years at Walter Reid Army Medical Center.

Since then, he has spent his time training for his next big challenge. So far those challenges have ranged from the 26.2-mile Bataan Death March, wakeboarding, and most recently, climbing the world’s largest free-standing mountain.

The adventure that led to the heights of Africa began on May 11, when Wagner, and the rest of Team Hard Target arrived in Tanzania. The group consisted of veterans Michael Wilson who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury; Nancy Schiliro whose right eye was replaced with a prosthetic after an explosion in combat; Ben Lunak whose leg was removed after he was attacked with an IED in Iraq; and Wagner.

The other half of Team Hard Target was comprised of former Eagles and Rams player Chad Lewis; former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Lewis; and three-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots Tedy Bruschi.

The team started the trip with a safari tour of Arusha National Park in Tanzania on May 12. On May 13, the work began. Day one of the hike began at the Machame Gate at an elevation of 6,000 feet. The group stayed together through the entire trip starting with the first-day hike through the muddy, slippery rain forest to base camp where everyone attempting the climb signed in.

The second day of the hike put the team into rocky territory.

“We were scaling rocks and it was one of the worst days,” Wagner said. “It seemed like it was never going to end.”

But eventually the second day ended as the team reached Shira Camp at 12,600 feet.

The next day had more rock climbing in store for Wagner and Team Hard Target. The group faced Lava Tower or “Sharks Tooth” and had to climb a 200-foot vertical face.

“If you fell, you’d be jacked up. It was constant pressure on the stump,” Wagner said of the rough third day.

By the end of the day, the team was at 12,950 feet at Barranco Camp.

The fourth day was a shorter hike for the team. They hiked for just four hours, passing over the Barranco Wall and reached Karango Camp at 13,780 feet where the team took extra time to rest and acclimate to the thinning air. On day five, the team hiked through Karanga Valley and after five hours reached Barafu Camp at 15,100 feet. After resting, the team set out that same night around midnight to push for the summit in the dark.

“We were frozen. It was dark. Our water froze,” Wagner said of the midnight departure from Barafu Camp. “It’s steep and we’re crawling up the path. Everything is frozen and there’s no oxygen. It sucks.”

The team reached Stella Point at 18,000 feet and realized they had 400 more vertical feet to reach the highest point in Africa.

“The sun came up as we reached the summit and there we were looking down over Africa,” Wagner said of that captivating moment.

After 20 minutes of resting and taking pictures of their accomplishment, the group headed down for thicker air.

“Then we realized, wait, we’re only halfway there,” Wagner said. They then hiked for 19 straight hours down. “On that day, my stump was in total pain. It was the sheer hatred of the mountain that kept me going.”

By the next day, the team was looking to cart Wagner the rest of the way down on a wheeled stretcher. But the veteran refused. “No way, I’m making it the rest of the way.”

On the seventh day, the team had to travel back through the rainforest which was still slippery and rainy. But eventually, the team came full circle reaching the Machame Gate.

“When we got to the bottom, our porters were there in traditional clothes and they were dancing and singing Swahili songs about the mountain. It was the coolest thing.”

By the time the wounded warriors were back in the U.S., Wagner felt good to be home again.

“It was good to be back. The smells and sounds of Tanzania are like Iraq,” Wagner said. “So it felt great to be back in the States because America is the best place ever.”

Wagner says that since he got back from the trip, he’s been getting text messages and e-mails from the other members of Team Hard Target and they are already scheduled for a reunion in Tennessee for a celebrity softball tournament later this year.

This year has been a tribute to awesomeness for the one-legged veteran. Now he’s got the difficult task of choosing his next challenge. Wagner’s looking into completing a triathlon. Whatever he tackles, the challenge will be met and life will continue to be lived.

To learn more about Team Hard Target’s trip and the Wounded Warrior Project visit www.believeinheroes.org.


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