First disabled person to climb Everest, American300 Never Quit Series visit USCG Station Ketchikan

With the upcoming visit by American300's Tom Whittaker and Robi Powers to USCG Station Ketchikan we thought sharing this story written by Tech Sergeant Scott McNabb, 24th Air Force Public Affairs would give the mission parameters the best: 

12/21/2012 - JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Anyone who wants to emulate the guest speaker from the American300 hosted Promise Tour, better understand the need to raise the bar for measuring success higher than most ever will.

Tom Whittaker, who lost his foot in a car accident in 1979, was not impressed when people in the hospital cheered for him when he put on his sock for the first time after the accident, he explained during a speech to more than 120 members of 24th Air Force at Arnold Hall here Dec. 19.

"You better set the bar a lot higher than that," he said raising his hand to neck level.

The Welsh-born mountaineer is not one to back down to challenges and became the first person with a disability to reach the top of Mount Everest on May 27, 1998. 

He visited members of 24th Air Force and others from around the base as the featured speaker of The Promise Tour - a program designed by Robi Powers, a U.S. Army veteran and former U.S. Olympic coach who saw a need for mentors to those in service now. 

Powers has gathered more than 50 volunteer mentors since 2009 and said the program only uses around 30 percent of those who apply. In 2012, American300 Tours mentors toured 25 stateside tours and five overseas.

Powers said he's delighted when people tell him the experience was uplifting or inspiring because that exactly what he's trying to accomplish.

"When we hear that a service member gets inspired by one of our guests, starts making positive choices in their life based on learning from one of our guests true life stories ... it's the ultimate payback," said Powers. "Our number one goal is to increase the resiliency of our service members. We do it through a simple mix of true life story telling, our guests are by their very presence in a room walking billboards for 'pre-exposure preparation training'"

Powers met Whittaker during the Olympics and years later called his friend to ask him to spread the word on resiliency by telling the story of his climbing feat.

Whittaker's first attempt to climb Everest was in 1989, but a storm that marked the end of climbing season hit and dropped 10 feet of snow on Whittaker and his climbing partner. They were forced to turn back. He tried again in 1995 and had to turn back just over 2,000 feet short of the 29,029-foot summit, when he ran out of oxygen because the expedition guides decided he would never make it and didn't carry his tanks ahead of the team as they did for the others.

In 1981, when taking someone with a disability to a park or beach was considered an adventure, Whittaker founded the Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoor Group (C.W.HOG) in Pocatello, Idaho. He broke down barriers with the belief that everyone should be eagles and not vultures.

During his speech, the eagle vs. vulture analogy resonated when he compared both birds to humans who either take what's lying in front of them and call that life or those individuals who soar, reach out and grab what they want in life and make it theirs. 

"It is your lives; it's your example that gives other people the chance to be as good as you are," said Whittaker. "And they don't follow vultures, ladies and gentlemen ... they don't. The hard way to earn your living is as an eagle and you earn it every day of your life. And it's not when you put the uniform on. It's not when you get out of bed. Its 24 hours a day every day of your life. You will drop the vase and you can't pick the pieces up, but you can learn from it and move on."

Whittaker had a dream job as a ski instructor in Idaho before the accident. He awoke to a different life, but his steadfast belief in himself and the help from the small town of Pocatello, Idaho were catalysts for success in a world of disbelievers. In a world of vultures.

Powers chimed into the speech for a moment and painted the picture of how handicapped were treated with kid gloves during the late 70s and through most of the 80s. He said the idea of taking an amputee to a park was dicey. He said the idea of someone missing a knee cap and a foot saying he was going to get to the top of Mount Everest was not taken seriously by most.

Whittaker said if he'd hired a few able-bodied climbers to haul him to the top, he would have been able to call himself the first disabled person to make it to the top, but no one in the world of climbing would have respected or endorsed that kind of ascent. He had to do it on his own one foot.

A friend of his who was a U.S. Marine helped him along. He pushed Whittaker to reach his lofty goals while he was bound to a wheelchair until the climber could walk again.

Whittaker started climbing again. He set goals and beat them. His HOGs, his daughter and a team of friends from the climbing elite were at the base camp of Everest when he went after the mountain again and accomplished his goal.

Capt. Michael Forostoski, a 24th Air Force operations planner, said both Whittaker and Powers were inspiring and reinforced a lot of great concepts while keeping the audience interested the entire time. 

"I really enjoyed hearing about Whittaker's life journey and how his spirit ultimately pulled him through every obstacle he faced including the accident, being homeless, and discrimination to eventually go on to have a conversation, and kiss the ring of, the Queen of England," he said.

Staff Sgt. Lance Mayfield, a 24th Air Force communications non-commissioned officer, said that Mr. Whittaker told him everyone makes mistakes in life and the woman that hit him lit a fire under him and set him on a path that allowed him to impact so many people.

Mayfield said that to him, being an eagle means, "Being able to look back at my life and say, 'I can't believe I did all that, let's do it again.' Looking back at my children and knowing that I showed them how to fly and hunt so that when they're ready to leave the proverbial nest they are ready to capture their dreams. My children are definitely who I am the eagle for."

Staff Sgt. Tamisha Rutledge, a member of the 624th Operations Center, had a slightly different, but equally positive definition of what being an eagle means to her.

"I try to be the eagle for myself first and foremost," she said. "I feel that if I'm a vulture then how can I possibly be the eagle for those entrusted to my charge or to those in leadership? If you are an eagle for yourself, then you can easily be an eagle for those you supervise, your peers, and your leadership."

American300 Tours is a 100% volunteer IRS 501c3 nonprofit which supports the Department of Defense and Department of State with unique mentor guest visits.  No federal endorsement of nonprofit or sponsors is intended or implied - 

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