- 1 of 4 Photos | View More Photos
Steven Downey and Andrew Oakes have been busy since last spring.
Downey got married and launched his fitness software business UTusk in Akron.
Oakes' wife gave birth Aug. 11 to their son.
And all that was after the 2005 Stow-Munroe Falls High School graduates and Army veterans went to Nepal in late May and early June to climb more than halfway up Mount Everest to bring attention to the issue of suicides among military veterans and to take relief supplies to villages hit hard by an earthquake.
They then accompanied a specially designed American flag with the names of a representative group of veterans who have committed suicide in recent years, more than 8,000 annually on average, back to the United States after it had been to the mountain's summit.
"We were flying back on my 30th birthday, which was June 14," said Downey, adding that they were in Nepal for three weeks.
"I think it was completely different from what any of us imagined going up," said Oakes. "It is by far the hardest thing I've ever done physically."
The climb was an initiative of Summit for Soldiers, an Ohio-based non-profit organization dedicated to helping veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder through mentoring and the therapy that can come from adventure activities, such as mountain climbing. It is also attempting to bring awareness to the problem of PTSD and suicide among veterans and ultimately reduce the number of suicides, according to the organization's website.
The flag was carried to Everest's summit by Summit for Soldiers' CEO and co-founder C. Michael Fairman, a former Navy corpsman who served in Afghanistan.
Downey and Oakes said they both have known fellow veterans who committed suicide. Downey is the founding commander of the University of Akron American Legion Post 808 and said he leapt at the chance when offered the Everest trip and immediately invited Oakes, also a member of Post 808, to go too.
They joined the Army together shortly after graduation. Initially, their paths separated. Oakes went to Germany and in 2006, Downey went to Iraq, where he served in a unit within the 10th Mountain Division as a combat medic until 2008.
In May 2007, Downey's mother was dying of cancer and he went home on leave to be with her during her last days. Jeanette Downey had been a culinary arts teacher at Stow-Munroe Falls High School and founded Joshua's Restaurant there.
When he returned to Iraq after the funeral, he found the newly arrived Oakes there as a reconnaissance scout.
Oakes said he had two deployments to Iraq, in 2007 and again in 2009. He and Downey both left the military in 2011.
"We went up to Everest Base camp. It's 17,600 feet. It was eight days up and three days back," said Downey. "Because it's the Himalayas, you're up one side, down another, down over a river and you're up and down mountains all day long. It's not like going up the whole time."
What struck both men is how the terrain changed as they went up.
"At first, it's like being in the Smoky Mountains or something," said Oakes. "The mountains are big, but they're covered in trees, there's still some wildlife. As you start moving up, it changes to a different planet. It's completely desolate, there's no life. Everything's just these huge boulders, these ice falls and the scenery changes so drastically."
Because of the lack of plant life, something else had to be used as fuel for fires, and Downey said this was "yak patties," since the animals are used to carry loads in the mountains.
"Up there, we were having dinner one night and one of the men who owned the T house [a structure used for shelter] we were staying at, he was the one who was cooking us dinner, and I asked him that and he said, 'Oh yeah, I'm making you dinner,' as he was throwing barehanded dry yak poop into the fire and I'm like 'fantastic,'" said Downey.
They did not use oxygen tanks and the thin air took its toll.
"We started with six people and ended with four," said Downey. "We had two people get lifeflighted off the mountain."
"You're just so tired," he added. "Every step is just exhausting."
Oakes said, "I kind of compare it to, like, the hardest workout of your life every day, day after day, except every day it gets harder and harder for you to breathe because nothing can prepare you for the altitude':
The low oxygen was not the only danger, with such risks as the cold and falls also a risk. Oakes said he and Downey befriended people they went up with who had prior experiences on the mountain, including witnessing deaths.
"A lot of people pass away in sad and tragic ways," said Oakes.
He said the climb was especially challenging for him.
"I'm super scared of heights myself and it's definitely not a place you want to be if you're scared of heights," he said. "A lot of times these paths, it's only 2 feet wide and there's a sheer drop on the sides, thousands of feet down and it's scary."
But both said they were glad they went.
"The trek was incredible," said Downey. "You realize just how big and powerful Mother Nature, the Earth, really is. You can't describe the size of the mountains and the power of the river."
Bringing in tents
Downey and Oakes also helped deliver supplies, principally tents provided through donations collected by Summit for Soldiers, to areas devastated by an earthquake.
"We've been in a Third World country because of a war," said Downey. "We've seen poverty because of war and natural disaster, so we got to truly experience poverty and see and experience it in a way not many people do."
The tents were to provide shelter for families whose clay and brick homes broke apart in the earthquake, as well as for classrooms in a school district containing hundreds of children.
"Some kids trek as far as two hours away," said Downey. "They walk to go to school and they're outside in those makeshift hut-like classrooms because the earthquake destroyed their entire village."
Oakes said he returned with a souvenir for his then-unborn son.
"I brought back a piece of Everest for him so hopefully one day, he'll understand," he said. "I kept telling myself the whole time, 'this isn't about you, it's for the people who can't be here. This is for your son, this is for your family.' It really helps you get through those times, when you realize again and reinforce to yourself, this is about the bigger picture, the cause that we're behind, suicide awareness. The momentum that we've gained since the trip has been unexplainable. We've gotten so many calls from so many people who are in support of what we do and we've really just been able to get the word out."
Facebook: Jeff Saunders Record