“I gave my body to my country,” former Marine Charlie Linville, who had his right leg amputated below the knee after surviving a bomb blast in Afghanistan, tells PEOPLE. “And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of my service.
“I’m not upset about my injury, but I can’t take people feeling sorry for me.”
The 30-year-old father of two from Boise, Idaho, knows he may never be able to stop people from staring, or from treating him like needs help or deserves pity, but he is going to the ends of the earth to prove his strength – both inside and out – to himself and other veterans.
On Tuesday, Linville and his climbing partner Tim Wayne Medvetz will depart for their third attempt at summiting Mount Everest. If they succeed, Linville will be the first combat-wounded veteran to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world. If they don’t, or if their journey is interrupted by a cataclysmic natural event (as their first two attempts were), they plan to try again next year.
“As far as I’m concerned, if it takes 10, 12, or even 20 expeditions to get Charlie to the summit, that’s what we’ll do,” Medvetz, 45, says. “And in doing that, we’ll show tens of thousands of wounded veterans that they can do anything. That reward is greater than any risk.”
Neither man has ever been one to shy away from risks. Linville served as a Marine for eight years, most recently working in explosive disposal in Afghanistan until injuries from a 2011 IED blast cost him his right foot and forced him into medical retirement.
Medvetz spent 10 years as a Hell’s Angel until a 2001 motorcycle crash left him partially paralyzed and deeply depressed.
The two men were brought together by The Heroes Project, a nonprofit foundation Medvetz, who is from Colonia, New Jersey, founded in 2009 to help wounded combat veterans recover from their injuries in the same unorthodox way he recovered from his own – by climbing mountains. To date, The Heroes Project has led a dozen wounded combat veterans on climbs on seven continents.
As Medvetz explains, after summiting Everest on his own, he knew he wanted to keep climbing but felt his passion needed a purpose. He became compelled to help wounded veterans after seeing a TV program on the challenges faced by disabled and disfigured veterans returning home from war. He identified with parts of the struggle he saw the veterans were facing – the loss of camaraderie from leaving a unit, feeling physically weak and directionless – and believed he had found a way to help.
“I saw how a lot of these guys felt like America had forgotten about them,” he says. “And I thought if a guy has done one of these huge climbs, he won’t end up one of the 22 veterans per day that commits suicide.”
“It won’t happen. When things get tough – and they will – that guy will always be able to look back and say, ‘I climbed the tallest mountain in Africa, I can do anything,’ ” he continues.
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For Linville, a father of two from Boise, Idaho, summiting Everest will mean precisely that.
After joining the Marine Corps at age 20 in 2006, Linville was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, where he served for a year. Two years later, in 2010, he was deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, this time on the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team on which he disarmed IEDs. On January 20, 2011, Linville was struck by an IED that left him with a traumatic brain injury, spine trauma, two amputated fingers and a severely damaged foot.
The recovery was long and “felt like an 18-month holding pattern,” he says. For a year and a half, Linville’s doctors attempted to save his right foot through 14 experimental surgeries, none of which were successful in helping him regain the ability to walk.
“I was in pain constantly, I was on numerous painkillers and I didn’t like the direction my life was heading,” the 30-year-old recalls. “Eventually I said, ‘This is a miserable existence, please just amputate it.’ ”
Linville’s right foot was amputated below the knee in June 2012. The day before his operation, he met Medvetz through a fellow Marine who had joined The Heroes Project on a climb of Mt. Kilamanjaro.
“My buddy told me about how great preparing for the climb was for him, so I didn’t even think twice about signing up,” he says.
For Linville, the idea of summiting one of the seven tallest mountains in the world represented the ultimate means of overcoming how he felt he was being treated as an amputee.
“When I got hurt, people were sweet, but at the same time, they pitied me. I can take the staring and I can take the pointing, but I can’t take people feeling sorry for me,” he says. “So to get on one of these mountains and to accomplish something most able-bodied people can’t, it would be like vanquishing that demon that was left behind by the war.”
Linville was selected for The Heroes Project’s first ever Mount Everest climb. He and Medvetz spent months training together and took off for Nepal in April 2014. That climb was cut short after an avalanche that resulted in the deaths of 16 Sherpas on the mountain.
One year later, the pair set out on a second attempt – only to be thwarted this time by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 8,000 and caused a massive avalanche that killed 19 climbers and Sherpas at Everest Base Camp.
Linville and Medvetz were on the north side of the mountain when the avalanche hit the south, leaving them shaken but unhurt.
“We were in a safe place, but we were hearing on the radio calls from everyone on the south side where there was chaos with bodies everywhere and we couldn t do anything to help,” Medvetz remembers. “The road to get back to Nepal was completely destroyed, the road back to Lhasa had been shut down, so we were trapped.”
With no hope of getting off of the mountain and no ability to reach those in need, many climbers on Everest’s north side felt there was nothing to do but complete their climbs, Medvetz says.
“Everyone around us started planning and saying, ‘We’ll go tomorrow,’ but it just wasn t right,” he explains. “I pulled our team aside and I said, ‘We are not taking Charlie up to the top of that mountain and posting photos of him standing at the summit with his arms in triumph while 8,000 people just died in Nepal right below us.’ ”
Linville agreed. He wanted to stay in Nepal and help with relief efforts. “I told Tim I don t want to go home, we’re here so we had might as well go help out. I didn t care what it took,” he says.
One week later, the pair finally made it to Nepal where they purchased 200 kilos of food and delivered it to difficult to access areas. “In the end, that was actually more rewarding than it would have been for us to stand on the summit of Everest,” Medvetz says.
The two men returned to the United States and months later, resumed training for six hours a day for the next climb. On April 5, Medvetz and Linville will head to Nepal to make their third attempt at summiting Everest. Medvetz says if any unforeseen circumstances come up this time, they still won’t give up.
Linville is also determined to finish the job no matter how long it takes. He’s driven by a deep desire to prove to other veterans feeling as wounded and helpless as he once did that all of that can be overcome.
“If one veteran sees what we’ve done and gets up off the couch and decides to change his life, or decides not to take his life, then it will all be worth it,” he explains. “That’s what drives me forward – showing other people that getting injured didn t define who I was, I got up and I did what it took to achieve a dream.”