Three disabled veterans. Three unfulfilled dreams. One distant mountaintop.
When they open their eyes Monday morning, Kirk Bauer, Neil Duncan and Dan Nevins will climb from their tents, shoulder their packs and begin a weeklong quest to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro, at 19,340 feet, Africa's highest peak.
"And we only have one good leg among us," says Bauer, 62, who has the good leg.
To reach the top, they will pass through four climate zones, negotiate boulder fields and loose rock, and fight the thin air and effects of altitude sickness. If their artificial limbs fail under the stress, the three combat veterans have vowed to complete the climb on crutches.
Bauer, an Army squad leader in Vietnam, lost his leg during a 1969 ambush when a grenade exploded nearby. Duncan, 27, lost both his legs while serving in Afghanistan in 2005 when an improvised explosive device tore through his body. An IED also cost Nevins, 39, his left leg in 2004 while he served in Iraq. Nearly three years later, the Lansdowne High graduate had the right leg amputated to fend off a life-threatening infection.
"It's a cross-war, intergenerational team," says Bauer, who lives in Ellicott City.
And it has a name with attitude: Team Missing Parts in Action.
The challenge began with a challenge. Before a banquet in Colorado for disabled skiers late last year, Duncan told Bauer of his failed attempt to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, adding, "I can't live with myself, knowing that I failed."
In his remarks before about 600 banquet-goers, Bauer repeated the story, which prompted Duncan to issue his challenge.
"He shamed me into it," says Bauer, grinning. "It's a 'Bucket List' kind of thing. I've never done anything like this."
While modest, the statement isn't quite true. An accomplished ski racer, he has completed the Marine Corps Marathon and the Boston Marathon, hiked the Grand Canyon and climbed several 14,000-foot mountains in the Rockies.
As executive director of Disabled Sports USA Inc. for 28 years, he has guided the Rockville-based organization through a period of tremendous growth, helping military personnel and civilians rebuild their lives through sports and outdoors activities.
Bauer started out as a client in 1969 after winning two Bronze Stars for heroism in Vietnam.
"It could have turned into a pity party, but they were the ones who got me skiing right out of the hospital," he says of Disabled Sports USA. "They helped turn my life around. One day on the slopes changed my mind."
He became a volunteer while he went to law school and worked as a congressional aide. When he took over, Bauer began expanding services and state chapters. The organization has 104 chapters in 38 states and annually offers more than 20 sports and outdoors activities to 60,000 adults and children.
In 2003, Disabled Sports USA launched the Warfighter Sports Series to give wounded veterans a chance to test their limits in more-extreme athletic challenges.
For Duncan, that meant sailing around England with disabled teammates in a race against able-bodied sailors, completing the 26.2-mile Bataan Memorial Death March in the desert of New Mexico this year in 10hours, 20 minutes, and conquering Kilimanjaro.
"For me, this is about more than climbing the tallest mountain in Africa," he says. "It is about proving to myself and others with disabilities that DSUSA's motto works — 'If I Can Do This, I Can Do Anything.'"
Sheer determination will help Team Missing Parts in Action. But smart planning might help avoid the pitfalls that cost Duncan the summit last year.
The team's guide, Nickson Moshi, led blind climber Erik Weihenmayer to the top in 1997, four years before he reached the summit of Mount Everest. And the expedition has climbing permits for three extra days in case someone needs to rest. The team hopes to reach the top next Sunday.
To prepare, Bauer has been hiking and biking on local trails, knowing that with his artificial leg he'll have to expend nearly double the energy of a nondisabled climber. Any advantage he has over his double-amputee teammates might be erased by his age.
But there is one thing Team Missing Parts in Action has over the rest of us, Bauer notes.
"We don't have to worry much about twisting an ankle."