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Wounded Fort Carson Warrior to Take On South Pole

The door opened.

Iceland appeared before Mark Wise. A blizzard raged, he remembers. White-out conditions -- winds howling at 40 mph. In a word, that minus 4-degree air was 'brutal. '

He stayed calm.

Wise recalled approaching that day like every other 'brutal ' day he's encountered over the past 31/2 years.

He faced it the same way he dealt with an insurgent's landmine tearing through all his limbs one fateful day in October 2009.

He approached that icy training exercise one baby step at a time.

The latest step, more of a leap, will come in early November.

Wise, a former Fort Carson platoon leader, plans to celebrate his recovery from a deadly blast in Afghanistan by strapping on skis and trekking to the South Pole alongside three other wounded troops and Britain's Prince Harry.

The trip is part of an expedition organized by Soldiers to Summits -- a program of the Fort Collins nonprofit organization No Barriers USA -- as well as a United Kingdom organization called Walking with the Wounded.

'Our focus is on using mountains as the metaphor for overcoming any of your life's summits, ' said Charley Mace, the program's director.

The training has been rigorous -- it began with that frigid trip to Iceland and will continue throughout the summer in the mountains north and west of Pikes Peak.

Wise never expected to be preparing for such a trip.

The explosion in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, changed all of that.

On a mission

When Mark Wise tells the story, he typically grabs the person next to him.

That's how close he was to Pfc. Devin Michel the moment the teenager died.

The blast came as bullets bit the ground around them Oct. 24, 2009. Wise planned the mission as a way to capture a compound off Kandahar's main highway, which served as a haven for trigger-happy insurgents.

Wise and Michel, his radioman, came under fire.

It happened quick.

Michel asked Wise to switch positions. As they moved, Michel, 19, stepped on a mine.

'Killed him instantly, ' Wise said.

Wise flew through the air. He landed temporarily blind and without his body armor -- the blast had blown it off.

He felt his chest and touched his shirt. He broke both his kneecaps and 'all the bones in my face. ' The blast tore chunks of flesh from his left thigh, left forearm and half his palm. Three of the five fingers on his left hand were missing.

'I knew I had to make it back to Kandahar (proper), ' Wise said. 'I was trying to count remnants of my hand or my fingers.

'I thought they could save four of the five, at least, because there were still sort of hunks of meat left. '

In the moments after that blast, Wise's soldiers still looked to him for direction. The officer tried to stay calm. He tried to stay awake.

Wise told them to grab a litter, bandage his wounds and move him back to his vehicle.

A helicopter flew him back to Kandahar city.

There, he finally fell unconscious. 'I just kind of said 'We'll see how this ends,' ' Wise said.

Stepping past pain

Wise knew he was in a hospital. The nightmares he recalls during his two-week coma told him as much.

He awoke inside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and immediately saw his sister. His wife, Sara, rushed into the room and asked if he remembered her. He said yes. She kissed him, and he again fell unconscious.

With most of his body immobilized and covered in bandages, another nightmare emerged over the following days and weeks.

'When you can't push the pain button for yourself because you can't move anything to do it, ' Wise said, 'and the rules for the hospital say no one else can push it for you, you really start to realize just how dire of a situation you're in.

'And so it's just kind of baby steps. '

His first goal was to press the pain button. Then to scratch own face. His third goal was to change the channel of his television with the remote.

Once doctors removed his feeding tube, he worked to get back on his feet. One doctor told him he likely would never run again.

'I told him to get the hell out, ' Wise said. 'Kind of took that as a challenge. ' A year after the blast, he ran a 10-mile race in Washington, D.C.

He wasn't alone

Wise has relied on two families -- one related by blood, the other forged through the military -- since the blast.

One family includes classmates from the Air Force Academy, where he graduated in 2007 before cross-commissioning into the Army as a lieutenant.

Classmates sent cards and a Wii to help him work to rehabilitate his bomb-torn hand.

Most of all, he relied on Sara.

Sara often woke up at 5 a.m. to push him to prepare for that race in October 2010.

He admits being lucky.

'A lot of other guys don't have that (support network), ' Wise said. 'And so they're not getting back on their feet as quickly as they should have, or could. '

That's why he plans to venture someplace that's even more harsh than that Icelandic snowstorm. South Pole temperatures can plummet to 50 degrees below zero. Winds often hit 50 mph.

He'll put those surgically-repaired kneecaps to the test by pulling sleds used to ferry supplies and gear across polar landscapes.

No more baby steps.

This time, he plans to glide along the snow.

'We have to do something like this, ' Wise said. 'Because, yes, there are other soldiers like us that get back and return to do a lot of things outdoors.

'But on a similar note, there's plenty of people who haven't found that inspiration yet. '

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