Brent Kuemmerle teaches amputees how to rock climb and snowboard.
He has a unique appreciation for the challenges his students face: he
has been rock climbing for 16 years… 13 of those, with one leg. As
Charles Michael Ray tells us, the large number of vets returning from
Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs means Kuemmerle's services are
in high demand.
Devil's Tower juts out of the Wyoming prairie like a skyscraper, hundreds of meters into the air. The massive rocky spire is one of the world's best-known climbing areas. It's on the 'must do list' for most serious climbers, including Brent Kuemmerle.
Kuemmerle lost his right leg below the knee in a car accident in 1995. He spent a long time recovering in the hospital and now uses a special prosthetic limb with an attachment that's designed for climbing rocks.
On one hot summer afternoon, Kuemmerle took his dad rock climbing for the first time at Devil's Tower. "My dad, who is not a climber, promised me when I was in the hospital that he would go climbing with me," he explains with a laugh, "and he was holding true to his word and was up there mostly against his will!"
Kuemmerle was leading the climb up the face of Devil's Tower. He was up the cliff about 90 meters, while his father held the rope on a ledge below for safety. Then suddenly, his prosthetic limb popped off his leg and fell down the cliff. "It goes careening," he recalls, "bounces once off the wall, misses my dad... thankfully." At the time, Kuemmerle was at least 90 meters above the base of the cliff; his father was 30 meters below him.
While Kuemmerle hung there – with one leg – trying to figure out how to get down, he heard a shout from the trail below. "'Hey, you up there, we've got your leg!' And I [thought], 'All right, cool.'" He recounts the rest of the shouted conversation. "'We'll take it to the ranger station,' and initially I'm like, 'Wow, that's super awesome that they're going to do that,' and then it occurs to me and I scream down, 'Hey! I'm going to need that to get down from here!'"
The Kuemmerles made it out of the predicament. Brent was able to safely rappel back down to the ledge while his father made the trip down to retrieve his leg. After making it back to the ground safely, Brent held out a camera at arm's length for a self-photo of himself and his dad. "There are no pictures in our repertoire that match the expressions on both of our faces. We both look very excited to be there, very excited to be alive and very, very excited to be father and son. "
Climbers will tell you that the excitement of their sport makes it addictive. They say rock climbing is like a drug. For Kuemmerle, it was the medicine he needed. "Climbing was the one thing that got me out of the bed in the hospital, that made me realize I need to get strong, I need to get healthy again, and I need to keep climbing."
It's this love of outdoor sports that Kuemmerle now tries to share with others who've lost limbs. In the summer, he works as an adjunct professor at the Lake Tahoe Community College in California, teaching rock climbing classes. In the winter, he's a snowboard instructor for Disabled Sports USA.
In both jobs, he says, he gets a chance to work with Iraq war vets who've lost limbs in combat. "Being an amputee gives me a unique empathy into what a lot of these returning veterans are going through," he observes, "because limb loss is an extremely and unfortunately common side effect of being sent to war."
Kuemmerle calls his work "part of an unfortunate growth industry." He says there is an increasing need for those who can teach wounded vets how to cope. "There is a need for physical help and healing of these people, there is a need for the mental help and healing of these people, there is a need for the societal help and healing of this entire blight on our history and these are all humongous needs that no one person or organization can fulfill. This is something that everybody needs to contribute," he insists.
More than 30,000 Americans have been wounded in Iraq. The Pentagon says about 6 percent of them come home with missing limbs. That's about 1800 amputees since the war began.
Brent Kuemmerle says he intends to keep helping disabled vets tackle physical challenges as long as they need him.