Why We Do It: Vets Scaling Mount McKinley Get Personal

From left: Nick Colgin, Margaux Mange, Brian McPherson and Josh Jespersen hold the U.S. flags they will fly from the summit of Mount McKinley in Alaska.

From left: Nick Colgin, Margaux Mange, Brian McPherson and Josh Jespersen hold the U.S. flags they will fly from the summit of Mount McKinley in Alaska.

Four veterans are pushing their endurance to the limit at North America’s tallest peak in an effort to bring awareness back to the true meaning of Memorial Day.

Josh Jespersen, Margaux Mange, Nick Colgin and Brian McPherson all served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They recently began what they’ve dubbed Mission Memorial Day, an effort to transition Americans away from shopping on Memorial Day and back to remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The former service members flew to Denali National Park on May 8 with the goal of scaling Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America. The climbers, who all suffered varying injuries during combat, took with them American flags covered in the names of fallen military members.  The team plans to fly those flags at McKinley’s summit to remind everyone down below of those who died in service to their country.

Read more about their mission here

Each veteran submitted to the Department of Defense a brief description of why he or she chose to embark on such a tough, important mission.

Josh Jespersen, a former Navy SEAL, is the expedition’s leader. Prior to this mission, he spent six years in the Navy and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with SEAL Team IV, participating in hundreds of missions in which he lost several friends. Here’s how he said he made the decision to begin this mission:

I lost a number of friends overseas while in the military, and because of that, I found myself sitting at the bar on all the anniversaries of their passing. I slowly began to think that too many times I was honoring their memory with a shot of whiskey; too many days throughout the year I had asked the bartender to fill a glass with whiskey and set it in the bar; too many days were spent thinking what I could have been doing with my friend on that day. So I decided I needed to do something different on those days.
What would I want to do with my friends on those days? I would want to go out in the mountains and do something awesome with them — something that would exhaust us and keep us wanting more. I started doing exactly that, and the day that I would take these endeavors the most seriously was always Memorial Day. When I would accomplish these feats on Memorial Day, I would feel like I honored them and made them proud.
This year, I want to extend an invitation to anyone who will take it to do the same. I wanted the rest of America to feel the same pride that I felt by honoring their loved ones and continuing their memory. To do that, Memorial Day has to be taken back to its roots — remembrance. Remembrance of the service, remembrance of the sacrifice and remembrance of the fallen.

Nick Colgin, a former Army airborne combat medic, suffered a traumatic brain injury when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his Humvee in Afghanistan in 2008.  While in recovery, Colgin struggled to even speak and had several surgeries. He said he’s climbing for a simple reason — to honor his friends.

Top from left: Brian McPherson, Margaux Mange.  Bottom from left: Nick Colgin, Josh Jespersen

Top from left: Brian McPherson, Margaux Mange.
Bottom from left: Nick Colgin, Josh Jespersen

This is the single most important event in my life. I have come through adversity my entire life. From growing up without parents, losing my best friend in Iraq and coming home unable to walk without a cane or spell my own name after a [rocket-propelled grenade] blast, I have been through it all. This is my chance to not only prove to the world that what’s inside me is stronger than anything [in] my way, but to also set an example for other returning veterans and honor those that couldn’t return.
My battle buddies and countless other individuals have given their lives to this country. They wrote the ultimate check for our freedom, and all we give them is one day a year — Memorial Day — and unfortunately, most Americans honor the bathing suit sales over my battle buddies. This is our chance to take back Memorial Day and do what’s right.

Brian McPherson was a Marine infantryman.  While deployed to Iraq in 2008, his squad was ambushed by multiple suicide bombers. McPherson suffered a traumatic brain injury, significant hearing loss and bilateral shoulder injuries. After intense therapy, he became a triathlete and said he is doing the climb to inspire success in other veterans.

I started on this journey with No Barriers USA and their program, Soldiers to Summits, where I was selected to be a participant for their Mount Whitney expedition. During the duration of this expedition I connected well with three of the veteran guides, who are now my teammates headed to Alaska. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental U.S., was very impactful on September 11th, so after that summit I wanted to go to Denali as my next summit, being the highest peak in North America. May is a huge month for many veterans, and more so for combat veterans who lost brothers and sisters in combat. I knew I was going to graduate [from college] in May, so the time of the month [for the climb] was perfect given I had time, and Memorial Day is the 25th. Going to Denali and planning to summit around Memorial Day was the perfect idea.
In everything I do, from triathlons to completing my bachelor’s degree, I want to inspire veterans to continue to strive for success just like in the military. I don’t want their injuries and experiences in war to hinder their success or the skills they learned in the military to be passed on after their services. I wanted this to be just like everything I do for triathlons — inspire veterans and Americans to overcome the barriers in their lives and let them know you can achieve anything you want in life, you just have to be patient, persistent and passionate.
Lastly, I’m doing this to raise awareness for all Americans to be aware of what I feel Memorial Day is really about — appreciating and recognizing the veterans that gave their lives for this great nation. I want Americans to know [that] recognizing these men and women is important for the very freedoms we have today. This freedom isn’t free, and the cost is about more than just a discount on a car or sale on spring wear. Additionally, I don’t want to see veterans drinking a beer alone on Memorial Day when they could connect with brothers, sisters, organizations, family, friends and civilians to get outdoors and take in our freedoms that have been protected since the establishment of the U.S. military.
We are all blessed. Americans should take every opportunity to thank a veteran and/or service member, not just on Memorial Day but every day. This expedition is an example of what us [climbers] want Americans to take from this mission — be strong and don’t settle where you are because you can always climb and reach higher! Live your dream every day, not just one day a year, veterans. Semper Fidelis!

Army Military Police veteran Margaux Mange did two tours of duty in Iraq. She suffered a concussion when her vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device, then she witnessed one of her closest friends die. Mange eventually developed Bell’s palsy and was discharged from the Army in 2008 after brain surgery and a number of treatments.

When I lost my best friend in 2007 to an IED blast, my world stopped. Ever since Ashly and two other good friends died, I have been trying to find myself. I found climbing was a way to live for them. The pain reminds me that I am still alive, and summiting on Memorial Day — there is no better way to honor their memories.

Wish them luck and #HonorThem on their journey!

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