Magazine / People

Climbing Back

When he reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Neil Duncan celebrated by saluting fellow paratroopers with the Airborne flag. Photo: Reed Hoffmann

When Neil Duncan reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on Aug. 7, 2010, he called his sister from the top. He told her simply, “I’m here.”

Those two little words said a lot.

Just a few years earlier, Duncan — now a University of Denver undergraduate — had nearly died on a battlefield in Afghanistan. He had to learn to walk again and to start life over without legs.

And then climb a mountain.

Sponsored by Disabled Sports USA, the Challenged Athletes Foundation and Health Net Federal Services, Duncan made the Kilimanjaro trek with Kirk Bauer and Dan Nevins. Their Missing Parts in Action team — three wounded veterans with just one leg between them — made international headlines.

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Conquering Kilimanjaro’s 19,340-foot summit was something he needed to do, Duncan says — a test of the limits of his new prosthetic limbs, and a test of his will.

Will is something he has plenty of. It’s what kept him alive in Afghanistan. It’s what powered his recovery. It’s what fueled his training for the trek — climbing 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado and logging 25 miles a week on elliptical machines. And will is what drove him up Kilimanjaro for up to 12 hours a day with a 30-pound pack on his back, sometimes walking, sometimes crawling over boulders and scree on the mountain’s upper reaches.

Standing on the top of Africa’s highest peak, Duncan proved to himself, and the rest of the world, that he’d left the limitations of his disability far behind.


Fighting to survive

Although the climb up Kilimanjaro had started just a week earlier, the journey began in 2002, when Duncan joined the U.S. Army.

He was 18 and had been taking classes at a community college in his hometown of Maple Grove, Minn.

“I was bored,” Duncan recalls. “I was re-evaluating my priorities and what I wanted to do. Military service was always on my radar.

“College would always be there [later],” he adds. “I wanted to train and see the world. I got every bit of that and more.”

Duncan spent his 19th birthday at Fort Benning, Ga., where he went through infantry training and paratrooper school. March 2003 found him stationed in Italy. A few months later, he was in Iraq.

In March 2005, Duncan — by then a 21-year-old sergeant in the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Infantry (Airborne) — was leading a team at Forward Operating Base Wolverine in the remote and sparsely populated Zabul province of Afghanistan. Zabul’s 40-mile border with Pakistan is a conduit for Taliban fighters.

“We were rolling all over our little province rooting out insurgent activity,” says Duncan, who spent the night of Dec. 4, 2005, parked in the cold on a mountaintop, watching for Taliban movement.

His team rose with the sun the morning of Dec. 5 and headed back to Wolverine along a dry riverbed. That’s when the Taliban struck.

Their attack came in the form of an improvised explosive device buried in the dirt track. The homemade bomb — with a makeshift pressure plate of tire tubing, pieces of chicken crate and old hacksaw blades — detonated directly under Duncan, who was sitting in the passenger seat of a Humvee.

The blast sheared off the truck’s front end. “The explosion was so fierce it launched a 100-pound Humvee wheel about 100 yards. It blew the radiator right out of the truck another 75 yards,” Duncan says.

The vehicle’s gunner was ejected and the driver’s head slammed into the steering wheel hard enough to leave a dent; both escaped with minor injuries.

But the explosion drove the engine through the Humvee’s firewall, crushing Duncan’s legs.

His right arm and hand were shattered, and he had third-degree burns on his left arm. His bottom lip was nearly severed, his jaw was shattered and 10 of his teeth were blown out, taking bone and skin with them.

“My legs were mangled, wrapped in metal,” he says quietly. “I just sat there, bleeding out.

“It’s not what you would know as pain — it’s beyond pain. It’s the worst nightmare you’ve ever had, and you can’t wake up.”

Twenty minutes ticked by.

Duncan stopped moving. By the time medics arrived, most of his blood had pumped out into the dust of that gulley.


The road to recovery

Medics left the chopper running as they gave Duncan all the blood they had at Forward Operating Base Lagman in Zabul. From there, he flew to a field hospital in Kandahar, where doctors amputated his mangled legs.

Neil Duncan

"There are a lot of assumptions about what people can do," says Neil Duncan. "I'd love to be the first person to break any of those." Photo: Reed Hoffmann

Three days later he was at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Still in critical condition, he was placed in a medically induced coma. A ventilator breathed for him. Vacuums inside his open amputation wounds kept them from festering; the wounds were scrubbed out at least once a day. On Dec. 11, 2005, he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Duncan doesn’t remember those early days, but his family can’t forget.

The Army informed them within hours of his injury. “That day is very vivid. I’ll never forget that day,” says his only sibling, older sister Katy Davenport. “The pain, the sadness, the hurt — nothing has come close to that day.”

The family met Duncan at Walter Reed, where Davenport stayed with her brother for the next three months.

“He was unconscious when we saw him. He was swollen. His legs were always covered — we could only see where they ended.

“At that point, we knew he would live, but we didn’t know his brain function, or if he had PTSD.”

Duncan’s teammates e-mailed a picture of his Humvee. “It was a shock,” Davenport says. “I thought, ‘How are you still alive?’”

Duncan finally woke to find his legs gone — the right was amputated above the knee, the left below. He was in a neck brace and his right arm — held together with plates and screws — was in a cast to the armpit. He breathed through a tracheotomy tube, his jaw was wired shut, and an external frame was screwed into his face to hold the fragments of his jaw in place.

“He was as bad as you can be and still be alive,” recalls climbing partner Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA and the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project. He met Duncan while visiting with severely injured soldiers at Walter Reed and “trying to give them a little hope.”

Duncan had surgery every day, sometimes twice a day, for weeks, lapsing in and out of consciousness.

Still, he says, he got lucky. He didn’t have internal injuries or a brain injury. He didn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder. He survived.

Duncan’s most vivid memory from that time is a nightmare — one he still can’t quite shake.

“I dreamed that my plane into Kandahar had crashed and ground my legs off,” he says, looking away. “I couldn’t wake up.” It was the worst night of his life.

As he fought to escape the nightmare, he says, “They had to chain me to the bed.”

“It was a couple of weeks in before I really started to deal with [the injury],” Duncan recalls. “I couldn’t move, couldn’t bathe. All of the hair on the back of my head fell out. It was just disgusting.”

He couldn’t focus on the future. “It was one hour at a time, there was so much pain.”

But he started to see progress. His legs were stitched up. He was able to drink through a straw. The stabilizer was cut off his face. He could speak again. He started physical therapy. He began to eat solid food. Eventually, he was fitted for prosthetics.

That’s when Duncan’s battle back really began.

He had blast marks on his face — black tattooing that had to be removed by laser. He required extensive dental work, including skin grafts and tooth implants.

He also had to learn to walk with prosthetics — the biggest challenge yet. “Initially, it’s like trying to walk on stilts, but there’s no sensation,” he explains. “You don’t know where things are. It’s like trying to walk on stilts and in a tremendous amount of pain.

“My first time standing was the most painful thing I’ve ever felt in my life,” he adds. “And it was the most disappointed I’ve ever been in my life. I foolishly thought I would muscle through it, but I could only stand for a few seconds.”

He practiced using his new legs for hours every day and set a goal of running again.

“He would put on his legs and run down the dorm hallways, and he would fall on the hard floor until he got it,” his sister recalls.

Duncan’s new mission was to end his dependency on others, and by May of 2006 he was living independently at a Walter Reed facility for severely injured soldiers. “There was no one around, and I liked it that way,” he says. “It made me deal with things, made me get up in the morning. It made me learn to do things and become independent.”

Eight months after his injury, Duncan took his first running steps on a track.

“It was 20 months before the legs became part of my life and I reached my full potential,” he says.

He retired from the Army, and in September 2007, not quite two years after he was injured, Duncan had the last of some 40 surgeries.


Climbing Kilimanjaro

The Kilimanjaro climb “changed people’s perception of what disabled people can do,” says Bauer, 62, a retired Army sergeant who lost his left leg to a hand grenade in Vietnam.

Neil Duncan descends Mount Kilimanjaro with the help of a guide

Neil Duncan describes the Kilimanjaro descent as a "controlled fall." Photo: Reed Hoffmann

As Duncan, Bauer and Nevins worked their way up the mountain, other climbers greeted the group of amputees with disbelief. Local children made robot noises as they passed.

“There are a lot of assumptions about what [disabled] people can do,” Duncan says. “I’d love to be the first person to break any of those.”

But breaking assumptions isn’t easy, especially on Africa’s highest mountain.

Duncan had attempted Kilimanjaro a year earlier but had to turn back. “[The guides] put me on a route that would require an acclimated climber to go for seven hours a day for seven days,” Duncan explains. “I was doing 14-hour days, shimmying across rock faces by headlamp. I turned around at 16,000 feet — I wasn’t sure I could get down.”

From that experience, Duncan told The Washington Post, “I learned that if you take a bunch of amputees and you want to put them on top of a mountain, there are a lot of things you need to think about.”

Things like allowing extra time for the trek up Kilimanjaro’s Rongai route and securing permits that would allow them to camp anywhere on the mountain — critical accommodations for disabled climbers. Duncan packed solar panels to power the microprocessor in his above-knee prosthetic and brought along extra legs as well.

“[The descent] was a huge, controlled fall,” Duncan says. “We’d go 100 yards and then tumble.”

On the way down, the microprocessor that controls resistance in Duncan’s artificial knee overheated and shorted out. Bauer’s prosthetic leg locked up and then fell off entirely. Nevins, 39, a retired Army staff sergeant who lost both his legs in Iraq, developed a pressure wound and high fever and had to be evacuated from the mountain after summiting.

On Aug. 8, 2010, Nevins greeted an exhausted Duncan and Bauer at the trail’s end.

Duncan doesn’t crow about the accomplishment, and he doesn’t dwell on his injury. “I really have a hard time remembering myself before,” he says. “You just get used to it — there’s no going back.”

“I’ve heard him tell people that it’s ‘better that it happened to me,’ Davenport says. “I never heard him do the whole whiny ‘Why did this happen?’ deal.

“His true core characteristics are the same. If he hadn’t had the determination and motivation, he wouldn’t have the same results,” Davenport says emphatically. “The injury enhanced them. It gave him a new appreciation for life.”

The injury certainly hasn’t slowed Duncan down. He skis, he bikes, he runs. He even jogged around the White House grounds with President George W. Bush in 2007.

In September 2010, Duncan enrolled as a full-time student in DU’s Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management with scholarships from the Veterans Administration and the Daniels College of Business. He’s one of 289 veterans currently enrolled at DU.

In October he completed the Army Ten-Miler—his farthest run yet on prosthetics. In November, he completed the New York City Marathon on a hand bike. In December, he headed off to New Zealand for an interterm course. And though he spends about 12 hours on the DU campus most days, he still makes time for at least an hour in the gym every day and jogs 4–6 miles at least twice a week.

Today, his only medical issues are sports injuries.

Duncan’s goals are to finish college and establish a career. And he intends to remain involved in raising awareness about wounded veterans and supporting all people with disabilities. “He really has been one of the warriors who has changed the paradigm for what disabled people can do,” Bauer says. “He’s really been a leader — a shining example of someone who has confronted their disability and moved beyond it.”

The road to recovery hasn’t been easy, Duncan admits. “I’ve done a lot of falling, that’s for sure,” he says with a laugh.

And getting back up.

Find out more about resources for wounded veterans and disabled athletes.

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13 Comments

  1. Mark McLaughlin says:

    I just read the DU Today article on Neil.
    It’s outstanding!
    I handled the media relations for Disabled Sports/USA and the Kili climb.
    This trio generated hundreds of stories in the media, but Chelsey Baker-Hauck’s copy was the best, most in-depth coverage I’ve read.
    Great job, Chelsey.
    Mark McLaughlin

  2. Mary Schroeter says:

    Chelsey,

    I am a graduate of DU’s school of Social Work so I regularly receive The University of Denver Magazine. I love the inspiring stories of everyday heroes that fill the pages of this magazine. They provide a wonderful contrast to many of the depressing stories in the local media. Your story about this courageous man climbing Kili was truly wonderful! I was planning to climb Kili this coming August when a lack of courage got in my way. After reading your story about Neil Duncan, reading his comments, watching the video and seeing the photos, I realized I MUST climb Kiliminjaro. Is there any way to contact Neil to let him know how much his story inspired me? Perhaps you can just forward this post to him, I’m sure he has inspired thousands.

    Thank you for the wonderful story!

    Mary Schroeter

    • Chelsey Baker-Hauck says:

      Mary: Thanks for your comments and for reading the DU Magazine. I’m happy to forward your message on to Neil. If you’re still on the fence about the climb, I say GO FOR IT! Send me a picture from the top!

  3. Steve Staley says:

    Hi Neil, Dang your climb of Kili was amazing!! But not as amazing as your comeback!! I have climbed Kili and I marvel at your story. I am also a DU grad. Happy trails, Steve Staley Chairman, Colorado Trail Foundation

  4. Chelsey – Please can you give me a contact number so that we can discuss your article.
    Thank you so much and well written.
    Wendy

  5. way to go guys! nice to see the accomplishments just keep coming. You’re an inspiration to all of us.

  6. classic story.

  7. Annie Webb says:

    Thanks for the article about the courage of Neil Duncan. I’m a DU grad and was in school during the Vietnam war. As an army physical therapist I treated many young men like Neil. Also had a chance to be on the forefront of training some of the first amputees who participated in skiing competitions at Winter Park using crutches fitted with cutoff ski tips. Those were some of my most satisfying experiences. I’m now 73 yrs old and the stories of what the young soldiers are accomplishing, today after devastating injuries, continue to make me proud to be a vet.

    • Chelsey Baker-Hauck says:

      Thank you for reading, and thanks so much for your service and your work helping other veterans.

  8. Well I am truly astonished at the sheer will of other. Most of us that consider ourselves “able bodied” would struggle to do what was achieved here by the so called ‘disabled’.

    It is a real eye opener , and tell us that anything is possible if we put our minds to it

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