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Catonsville veteran leads journey up Mt. McKinley

Kirk Bauer answered the door to his home on Frederick Road covered in debris and soaked in sweat, signs of the hard work he had put into remodeling his kitchen Wednesday afternoon.

Walking with a limp as he showed off his work, he joked about playing hooky from his day job.

No one could blame the 64-year-old Bauer if he did take a break from his job as executive director of Disabled Sports USA.

Last month, he took on what he called "the most challenging thing he'd ever done physically."

Bauer, who lost his left leg 43 years ago, and four other disabled veterans attempted to climb Alaska's Mount McKinley, which at 20,320 feet is the tallest mountain in North America.

Three of the veterans had lost one or both their legs. The fourth climber had severe muscle damage to his legs.

"We didn't know if we could do it, but we were willing to try," said Bauer, who moved to Catonsville from Ellicott City two years ago.

Though they conquered slopes of 35 and 40 degrees while dragging sleds of equipment, fierce winds reaching 70 mph prevented them from reaching the summit.

"They would literally blow you off the mountain," Bauer said of the dangerous gusts.

The group spent nine days at a camp at 14,000 feet waiting for the weather to calm, but it never did.

They peaked at an altitude of 15,500 feet, then turned back.

Though the quest was not completed, Bauer appreciated the natural beauty of the area, he said.

"I've never seen anything more majestic," he said, recalling views of snowy peaks, valleys and the tundra.

Bauer will speak about the journey at 7 p.m. on Aug. 8 at the Rolling Road Golf Club.

Those who attend are asked to make a $5 donation to Disabled Sports USA in lieu of purchasing tickets.

Disabled Sports USA is a Rockville-based nonprofit established in 1967 by disabled Vietnam veterans to serve others injured in the war, according to its website.

The organization now offers sports rehabilitation programs to anyone with a disability nationwide.

Living in a slow-motion world

If anyone is proof that the journey, not the destination, makes the man, it's Bauer.

"Sports is what got me out of the house and back on the road to recovery," he said.

He traces his life's path to a grenade thrown by a Viet Cong soldier one March night in 1969 when his 9th Combat Infantry Division ambushed 400 of the enemy.

The battle was "as close to hand to hand as you can get," he said.

Bauer, a non-commissioned officer at the time, had turned 21 about a month earlier.

"It felt like my brain was frying," Bauer, now 64, said of getting hit.

As the firefight raged around him, medics arrived and tied a tourniquet around his left hip, a signal to Bauer how badly he had been injured.

A swimmer and football player in high school, Bauer recalled living in a "slow-motion" world as he moved around on crutches and in wheelchairs.

He eventually would endure seven operations. Around the time of his sixth operation, Bauer contemplated suicide.

"The whole atmosphere tends to beat you down," the Oakland, Ca., native said. "Your self-image is shot."

A recipient of two Bronze Stars for heroism and two other military awards, Bauer said he considered throwing himself from the fourth-floor window of his hospital room.

"I was taking a checklist and just ticking off the things I couldn't do," Bauer said.

The need for speed

Nine months after he lost all but five inches of his leg, Bauer skied for the first time with his disability.

"For me, it was like the biggest high in the world," Bauer said.

Within months of the first ski trip, Bauer started volunteering to help other disabled veterans get the same feeling he had of the wind rushing by his face as he hurtled down a mountain.

After volunteering for 12 years, he became executive director of Disabled Sports USA.

He remains in the position 30 years later.

As part of his day-to-day duties, Bauer helps people with disabilities participate in sports, such as climbing, surfing and running.

"We really focus on the physical act," Bauer said. "That in itself has a really, really strong psychological effect."

In 2003, Disabled Sports USA formed Warfighter Sports to assist veterans disabled in the most recent conflict in Iraq, according to its website.

In its nine years, Warfighter Sports has helped nearly 5,000 veterans and their families participate in more than 30 sports.

Just as Bauer became addicted to going fast down the ski slopes, these wounded warriors wanted to do more and more.

"Whatever they're doing they want to do it faster," Bauer said. "They pushed us to get into more extreme sports."

In 2010, Bauer and other disabled veterans climbed to the top ofTanzania'sMount Kilimanjaro, which at 19,336 feet is the tallest mountain in Africa.

In June, he and four other veterans, who were about half his age and had served in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, started an ascent of Mount McKinley.

Though two of the climbers had lost both their legs, "I was always the last one," Bauer said with a laugh. "They would call me the slug."

They worried that the cold and physical demands placed on their prosthetics would break them, but the carbon fiber and metal materials held up.

Bauer called placing his stump in the cold brace each morning "excruciating."

Gains through loss

Though he still takes part in mountain climbing and other extreme sports, Bauer has replaced much of the skiing he does with bike riding and hiking, two activities much easier on his aging joints.

Sports is how Bauer learned to love life again, and he has worked to pass that joy to others.

"We're just teaching the basics of how to," Bauer said of his organization. "Because once they have the basics, they can do anything."

That his job allows him to dabble in various sports is "icing on the cake," he said.

The best days, though, are when Bauer sees someone succeed in sports for the first time since becoming disabled.

"You get someone who really starts to love life again," he said.

Had the grenade not blown off his leg, Bauer likely would have never climbed Mount Kilimanjaro or made it to within a mile of the peak of Mount McKinley.

"The work for me has been the most fulfilling thing in my life," he said. "It's heartbreaking to see how far down people can get when they get disabled."

He said people often ask him whether he would have his current life or a new life with both legs.

Bauer responds that he wouldn't trade what he has now.

"I feel my life is more meaningful," Bauer said of his life with a disability. "I'm lucky in the fact that I focused on something fulfilling to me and helpful to others.

To RSVP for Bauer's talk at Rolling Road Golf Club, contact Allison Carroll at acarroll@rollingroadgc.com or 410-747-5194, extension 10.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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