Steve Baskis: Profile of a Survivor at 19,000 Feet

DARK VICTORY: Three years ago, Baskis, then a 22-year-old U.S. Army infantryman, was permanently blinded by a bomb while serving in Iraq. Since then, his life has been a series of challenges, many of them of his own making—including a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.


 

When I open my eyes, I see pale light filtering into the tent, and I know it is morning. My tent mate is already up and packing his gear. He hears me stirring in my sleeping bag and turns toward me. “Good morning, Brian,” he says. One of our Tanzanian guides raps softly on our tent, unzips the door, and offers two steaming cups. We sip our coffee, warming us against the chill, and talk about the day ahead, climbing farther up Africa’s highest mountain, still three days from the summit.

I crawl from the tent and gaze down on a deep, cottony blanket of clouds hundreds of feet below that stretches to the horizon, the billows tinted yellow and pink by the rising sun just cresting a jagged ridgeline. Behind me, Mount Kilimanjaro looms, its summit a mix of rock slab, shattered volcanic rock, and massive glacier. My tent mate crawls out and stands beside me. He can see none of this. Steve Baskis has seen nothing at all for the past three years.

I tie his bootlaces, since his atrophied left hand doesn’t work well enough for the intricate manipulation of knots, and we move to the mess tent for breakfast, with me in the lead and his hand resting easy on my shoulder. After porridge, toast, and eggs, we’re on the trail. I ring a small bell usually carried by hikers to ward off bears, and Baskis follows the jangle with his left ear, the good one. He uses two trekking poles like insect antennae to scout obstacles, his lithe six-foot frame hunched at the shoulders.

We spend hours in conversation on the trail. We talk about Iraq, where we both served at different times as infantrymen in the U.S. Army, and I describe the river valleys, scrub brush, and wildflowers around us. But for the technicalities of hiking, we use a simple shorthand to keep him from smashing his knee into a rock or stepping into a void: Drop off left. Big step up. Narrow chute. Tree branch to your right.

Walking around his neighborhood in Glen Ellyn or in downtown Chicago challenges Baskis, with whizzing traffic and crowded sidewalks. But mountain climbing is mentally exhausting for him, and physically he’s expending far more energy than I am. With each step, his foot hovers for a fraction of a second before he fully commits, always ready to pull back or readjust his weight. Still, he frequently rolls an ankle or hyperextends a knee. “When you can see, at least you can compensate,” he says. “You can place your feet exactly where you want them to go.”

He has incredibly fast reflexes, from years of sports and martial arts, and an inherent athleticism, but that only lessens the beating on his body. As we hike, he tells me about how he used to move with grace and fluidity, how he climbed trees as a boy growing up in southern Illinois, how he was the fastest soldier on the obstacle course.

We climb uphill for hours, from 12,500 feet to a ridge just under 15,000 feet, on a mix of smooth dirt trails and staircases of boulders and loose rock, then we start down into a valley, headed for our camp 2,000 feet below. I can see a cluster of tents, still a few miles off, that seems no closer each time I look. Baskis holds on to my backpack with his left hand, which allows us to move faster, but he still stumbles on the rocks, and his frustration swells. He rolls an ankle and bangs his shin.

At times like this, miserable and exhausted, he reminds himself that these moments are a gift, even the pain. He thinks about Victor, whose wife now has no husband, and Victor’s two children with no father, and figures he owes this to Victor, because he’s alive and Victor is dead.

But sometimes he wonders if Victor was the lucky one.

 

In his first weeks at the hospital, Baskis met a visually impaired soldier further along in recovery, and they talked about their new world: life without sight. “What I hate the most is you forget,” the soldier said. “You forget what people look like. You forget what your family looks like.”

Baskis hasn’t yet forgotten his family’s faces, but even if he can hold those images, they will be stuck in time, the same for him 20 years from now. The faces of some friends have faded, now no different in his mind from the faces of those he has met since the injury—including his wife—distinguished by voice and personality.

But he still sees, in his own way, just as he dreams about his experiences, painted in color and motion—the same as those of us with sight might dream about places we’ve never been, our minds pulling together a mosaic of what we know and remember. He renders his waking world from everything that came before. He builds his own version of Kilimanjaro using memories of a climb up South Africa’s Table Mountain in high school, of hikes through parks across the United States, of paging through National Geographic, and of watching the Discovery Channel. “When I was younger, I always took the time to take things in,” he says. “I use that to imagine everything I do now.”

Which is this: He has climbed a 17,000-foot volcano in Mexico, and last year he and I summited a 20,000-foot ice-covered mountain in Nepal, a few miles from Mount Everest. He has run a half marathon in Chicago, trained for the Paralympics cycling team, and finished a half-Ironman triathlon. He has white-water kayaked and scuba-dived and snowshoed, many of the adventures funded by groups that help wounded veterans. Between races and climbs, he’s taking classes at the College of DuPage—studying history, politics, and sound design, not sure where it will lead—and working as a veterans liaison for the school. He wants to climb Mount Vinson, Antarctica’s highest peak, scuba-dive on the Great Barrier Reef, travel through Egypt and Israel, and sail across an ocean.

The to-do list grows almost daily, and he knows this can seem quixotic to others. Why swim through schools of fish, punish his body on a mountain trail, or visit Rome and stand in the Colosseum, as he did last March, only able to feel the stone? But this is the life he wanted before, and living more fully than many able-bodied people eases the loss. “I don’t feel as disabled. I don’t feel as injured,” he says. “You just suck it up, and you do what you have to do. If you have a problem, you do your best. That’s all you can do.”

Baskis is an anomaly among the more than 50,000 U.S. casualties from a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Consider his horrible wounds, his relentlessly positive attitude, and every improbable thing he’s done since the injury, and his recovery and successes can seem inevitable. Doctors call this phenomenon survivor bias: When we spend too much time focused on the exceptions, they start to seem like the norm. We forget about the others who don’t fare as well. Those who don’t survive the blasts or the bullets, who are too damaged to be sewn back together. Those who survive but barely recover, sustained by machines. Those too mentally scarred to leave their homes or interact with others. And those drowning in pills and booze.

We see amputees bicycle across the country and surf and even return to the battlefield. Soldiers with faces burned away tell us their wounds are just another of life’s challenges. And there’s Baskis, running through the streets of Chicago in a throng of marathoners, trailed by television news crews telling a story of inspiration, a local hero overcoming adversity. What people don’t see, what they don’t understand, he explains, is the overlap between the two groups. “I have the same thoughts as the guys who are hating life. I have that dark corner of my mind,” he says. “Being blind is horrible. Just horrible.” It’s as though someone has turned off the TV, and he waits in the darkness for the world to reappear. Now he must ask people to show him to the bathroom. He stabs a fork at his plate, unsure how the food is arranged. He can’t buy groceries for himself, go to the movies, or play basketball, which had been his favorite sport. Everything that once was so easy, so obvious that it didn’t warrant consideration, has become either a task or a memory.

In Baghdad, he and his buddies had talked through the what-ifs, as soldiers often do under the daily threat of death or horrific injury. Baskis told his friends that if he lost his vision, he wouldn’t want to live. And that was true—before the explosion. “You say you couldn’t do it, but you just don’t know. You make that choice afterward,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine being paralyzed from the neck down. I think I’d want to die if I was paralyzed. But you don’t know until it happens to you.

“If someone is seriously injured, do you think they have the choice if they want to live?” he asks me. He pauses and then answers his own question. “Some people don’t have the will to survive,” he says. “And some people won’t give up.”

* * *

On the trail, Baskis gets an equal mix of encouraging words and stunned stares when other trekkers realize he’s blind, which is not obvious to many at first glance. He is 25 years old, lean and strong, with black hair trimmed close, as it was in the army, a tanned face, and a fast smile. Shrapnel in his face, arms, and legs still migrates, pushed out by the body until he can dig the pieces free with a fingernail, but when he wears long sleeves and sunglasses—or his prosthetic eyes, which he has left at home for the Africa trip—the signs of injury are subtle: a long skinny scar near his throat and a few small divots on the right side of his face.

After the day’s climb to the ridge and the long walk into the valley, weaving between rocks, we are the last ones into camp, and the others in our group cheer for Baskis when we arrive. The expedition leader, Kevin Cherilla, climbed with Baskis in Nepal last year and invited him to climb Kilimanjaro, where he guides yearly trips. Some in our group, hesitant to pry, had asked Cherilla what happened to Baskis and if he might share his story, so after dinner, with a dozen people squeezed around a long table in the dining tent, Baskis tells us about May 13, 2008.

He flipped a coin with another soldier to decide who would drive that day and who would man the gun turret, deemed the better job because you can take in more of the surroundings instead of focusing on the road. He won, but because the other soldier had smashed up a truck several days earlier and still felt skittish behind the wheel, Baskis took his place. As he drove through a traffic circle on the outskirts of Baghdad that night, an insurgent detonated a roadside bomb called an explosively formed penetrator, feared above all others by soldiers. Most bombs throw out ragged chunks of shrapnel and huge concussive shock waves. But an EFP—a metal tube packed with explosives and capped with a thick copper disk—ups the lethality. The blast superheats the copper into a molten slug that can blow through inches of armor. The searing metal hit the truck on the front passenger side. One large piece punched through the door, and another through the three-inch-thick windshield. They broke apart into a shotgun blast of shrapnel that ripped through the vehicle commander—and Baskis’s closest friend in Iraq—Sergeant Victor Cota.

Shrapnel peppered Baskis’s face and gouged a hole in his neck, just missing the carotid artery. Another piece tore into his left thigh, near the femoral artery. Had either artery been clipped, he could have bled to death in a minute or two. More shrapnel sliced into his right biceps and forearm, and a piece gashed his left forearm near the elbow, mangling the nerves and blood vessels. But it was a tiny shard of jagged metal that caused the most profound damage. Boring through his right temple, it ruptured his right eye, cut both optic nerves, wrecked his sinuses, and lodged behind his left eye.

Still, it could have been far worse. Baskis lived because Cota, seated next to him on the truck’s passenger side, absorbed or slowed down much of the shrapnel. So much of Cota’s blood covered Baskis that his rescuers thought he, too, was dead.

He remembers hazy patches, quick blips, yelling and screaming, maybe him or maybe his buddies calling for the medic. He doesn’t remember asking his friends if everyone else was OK or hearing that Victor was dead. He doesn’t remember the frantic bandaging, the medevac, or the groggy, doped-up, slurred-speech call home before his flights to Germany and then the United States. “Dad,” he said, “I got blown up.”

* * *

 

Baskis woke from the fog of narcotic dreams and found his family stationed in his room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. With his eyes still bandaged and his body wrapped in pain, he didn’t know the full extent of the damage until a doctor told him, too bluntly for his family’s liking, that he was blind and would never see again. His father sat down on the bed, lightheaded and nauseated, as he considered the life ahead for his boy.

Baskis didn’t move or speak. But the next day, he was issued a white cane, and he wanted to know when he could leave Walter Reed for the rehabilitation hospital. “When I was lying there, I thought, Fuck this. I’m not going to feel sorry for myself,” he tells me. “There’s lots of blind people. I’m going to be the badass blind guy.”

So in between multiple surgeries to clean out wounds and repair his sinuses and the damaged blood vessels and nerves in his left arm, he walked the hallways, bumping into walls, teaching himself to navigate a darkened world. Bandages still covered some of his wounds, which included two bone-deep burns on the back of his neck that would heal into raised scars shaped like lips. The kiss of death, he calls them.

After two months at Walter Reed, Baskis moved to Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital just west of Chicago, one of ten VA hospitals for rehabilitation of the blind. In daily classes, he learned to negotiate congested streets, ride public transportation, read Braille, prepare simple meals, and use all the technology available for the blind. With a computer that speaks to him, he blogs and e-mails, which is an exercise in memory. He must hold sentences and paragraphs in his mind or go through the sluggish process of constantly having everything read back to him. The bigger hindrance is typing with just his right hand, since he doesn’t have enough dexterity with his left. But when he uses his iPhone, his right fingers dance across the dark screen, and he has sped up the phone’s “voice” so fast that the words are nearly indecipherable as it spits out responses and reads back e-mails.

He takes pride in being physically and mentally resilient, and he wanted others to see this. He’d recover faster. He’d be stronger. He wouldn’t feel sorry for himself. At one point he was taking 16 medications a day, but then he flushed them down the toilet: painkillers, antianxiety pills, sleep aids. “They told me all that medicine was something I needed,” he says. “And look at me. I’m doing fine.” While at Walter Reed, he sometimes heard other blind soldiers on his floor weep or scream in frustration or anger. But Baskis is measured, deliberate, and pragmatic, and he treated recovery the same way he had prepared for war. “I told myself all the time I could get killed, I could get injured,” he says. “And I think that really helped me. Some guys just don’t think about it, that it can happen to them.”

He figured there was one inescapable consequence that determination couldn’t change: He would be alone in life; no woman would want him, broken and sightless. But hanging out around the nurses’ station he met Sarah, a petite teacher of orientation and mobility, the foundation course in navigating blind. Another soldier, who had some sight, noticed this and told Baskis how cute she was. For Baskis, the attraction arose from Sarah seeing past his injuries and wanting to know about him. Their brief hallway chats became long conversations, and when Baskis left the hospital after four months, he stayed in Chicago to be with Sarah. They married on a beach in Mexico in 2010 and now live in a Glen Ellyn townhouse with Sophie, their English bulldog.

Baskis can hear in some people’s voices that they feel put out when he asks for help, say, finding the bathroom. Others dote or think he’s incapable on his own. They grab his arm to guide him down the street or insist he take an elevator instead of the stairs. Sarah does none of these things. Watch them in their home, and it’s easy to forget he’s blind. They are simply a young couple, teasing and caring.

He often wakes before Sarah, but without any visual cues, he sometimes doesn’t know if he’s asleep or awake. If it’s not the voice from his phone alarm telling him the time, ambient sounds alert him to wakefulness. At home, he can estimate the time from the sound of traffic and the warmth of the sun coming through the window. This is a life of long pauses, using his remaining senses to construct a framework, an understanding of the world and his ability to move through it. “I’ve become a more patient person,” he says. “That’s all you can do. Just step back, take a deep breath, and say that’s life. Shit happens. Do what you can. Do the best you can.”

He can’t drive. He can cook only the simplest meals. He can barely tie his shoes. But those are just logistics and annoyances; he’s more interested in the mental barriers. Before the explosion, he wanted a career in Special Forces, an elite unit whose members undergo punishing selection and training and perform some of the military’s most dangerous missions. He had wanted to test himself, to understand his capabilities. The challenges today are different, but the intent is the same. “Everything scares me,” he says. There’s uncertainty and lack of control in climbing a rock face or crossing a busy street. But the fear drives him.

“It’s about knowing yourself, knowing how far you can push yourself,” he says.

“What have you learned about your limits?” I ask.

“I don’t know. I haven’t found any yet.”

* * *

 

We crawl into our sleeping bags at seven o’clock on summit night and wake four hours later. We drink tea and eat porridge and cookies, and just after midnight we gather outside with the others, stamping our feet and working warmth into our arms and legs. The air temperature is 20 degrees, but the night is calm, and within a few minutes the chill in our bodies fades. Baskis rests his left hand on my backpack and holds a trekking pole with his right. We walk into the darkness, following a six-foot circle of light from my headlamp. The rest of the team stretches out behind us, a bobbing line of white lights.

The thick layer of scree—the loose rock debris that covers the mountainside—has frozen and gives good purchase for our boots. We climb steadily for the first two hours, lost in the rhythmic shuffle, both of us feeling warm and strong. But just past 17,000 feet, the temperature drops to 15 degrees, and the wind kicks up, a cold breeze that soon builds to 25 miles per hour and more. The frigid blade slices through us, stings our faces, and starts to freeze our water bottles. Of real concern, though, the cold creeps deeper into Baskis’s left arm, and that ever-present ache ratchets higher. The mangled blood vessels limit circulation to his lower arm and hand, which has little tactile sensation because of damaged nerves. He can burn his fingers without noticing, and out here fingers can freeze quickly, with blood-starved tissue damaged beyond repair. “Sometimes you have to suck it up and push through,” Cherilla had told the group in a preclimb briefing the night before. That’s something of a mantra for Baskis, drilled into him in the army. But the pain, now extreme, crowds his thoughts.

One step. Another step. Another. Pause for several breaths. Another step. By 18,000 feet, I feel a headache creeping in behind my eyes, and the altitude has roughly the effect of several beers. I stumble, which causes Baskis to stumble behind me. I apologize, and we climb, and I stumble. I mostly stare at the ground directly in front of me. Each time I look up, the cone of light shows only more rock, rising far above us. Baskis doesn’t bother asking what I see ahead; he knows we’re not yet close. We stop to put on another layer of clothes and let several of our fellow climbers pass. Baskis’s arm is getting colder, despite two hand warmers slipped into his gloves. The temperature drops below 10 degrees, and the wind gusts at 40 miles per hour, pushing the windchill far below zero.

Just before 5 a.m., we reach Stella Point, on the volcano’s rim, marking the end of the steepest section.  Though we had scaled a higher, steeper mountain in Nepal, we are spent from tonight’s climb. Fortunately, the grade eases as we skirt along the crater’s edge, another 45 minutes and more than 500 vertical feet to the true summit, Uhuru Peak, at 19,341 feet. A wooden sign announces a patch of rock as the highest spot in Africa. Our group takes a few pictures, flashes popping in the darkness, and I turn to see Baskis waving his left arm, trying to push blood into his forearm. “I can’t feel my arm,” he says. “I might lose my fingers.”

We need to leave the summit—now. Baskis’s left hand no longer works well enough to hold on to my backpack, so he stows his trekking pole, wraps my down parka around his left arm, and holds on with his right hand.

The climb up had been much the same for both of us, the night defined by blasts of icy air and the rocks underfoot. But on the way down, I’m reminded of what Baskis has lost. To my left, the sky yawns, and the black gives way to indigo, then azure, and then a fiery pink band on the horizon. I see the deep bowl of the volcano crater and, to my right, the shrinking but still massive glaciers of Kilimanjaro, 50-foot walls of striated ice. I describe the scene to Baskis, but his mind is elsewhere. “I’m ready to get off this mountain,” he says, voicing a rare moment of exasperation.

The sun rises, the wind tapers, and the danger of frostbite passes. Baskis’s arm warms, and enough movement returns that he can hold on to my backpack with both hands. We bound down the mountainside in lunging steps, sliding in the now-thawed scree. Dust clouds rise in our wake. He follows close and anticipates my movements, mirroring the shifts in my shoulders and hips that precede a slide to the left or right. A few times I start to fall, and he keeps me upright, hoisting my pack enough for me to regain my footing.

By 8 a.m., we are back at our 16,000-foot camp, exhausted. We nap for a few hours, and then we start down again, descending to 13,000 feet. The next day, we drop another 3,000 feet. The hike pounds Baskis’s knees. He rolls his ankles and strains his Achilles tendon but says little about it, and then we are done, another test of his limits finished.

We pile into a bus for the long ride back to the hotel, and I hang my head out the window and watch Africa pass by. Women walk along the road with fat baskets balanced atop their heads. Boys of seven or eight herd goats, whacking strays on the rump with slender sticks. Men cluster near roadside market stalls. Behind them, Kilimanjaro rises from the plains, still looming but fading in the distance. Baskis rests his head on the seatback, and I don’t know if he’s asleep or awake until Bob Marley’s voice drifts from the bus stereo: Don’t worry about a thing. ’Cause every little thing gonna be all right. “We were listening to Bob Marley in the truck all that day,” Baskis says. “‘Three Little Birds.’ Every time I hear this song, I think of that day.”

* * *

The engines whine, and the plane spirals higher over the farmland of southern Wisconsin. Lake Michigan stretches to the eastern horizon, and Chicago sprawls to the south. Air swirls through the cargo bay, and Baskis shuffles to the rear of the plane, which is open like a cave’s mouth. Tom Noonan, his tandem partner, steps in behind him and fastens a harness that locks them together. They will jump as one, with Noonan pulling the chute’s ripcord after a 10,000-foot free fall at 120 miles per hour.

“Will we be wearing goggles?” Baskis had asked him earlier in the hangar.

“Yeah,” Noonan said. “Why?”

“I don’t want my eyeballs to fall out.”

Baskis had been skydiving twice before, but never blind. He knows he represents something bigger than himself, showing others their lives don’t end with an injury. But like the climbing and scuba diving and everything else, he does this for himself, because he still can, because of all the sighted people who could but don’t, who are too scared or are content just to watch TV or sit in a bar. And if he didn’t push, collecting new experiences and searching for his limits, what would be the point of living? Friends and family have wondered at his taking such risks, given what he’s already been through. Some have asked his father why he doesn’t dissuade him and urge caution. For this his father has no patience. “Are you crazy?” he says. “Let him live his life and do what he wants. It’s his life, and he’s earned the opportunity. And he’s not just sitting at home sulking that he got injured. I wouldn’t even begin to tell him not to.”

 As he told Baskis and his other two sons when they were growing up: “It’s your life to live. You do whatever you want.”

A week earlier, Baskis had stood on top of Africa, and now, as the plane nears 14,000 feet, he inches toward the edge. The magnificent world he no longer sees stretches beneath him. The quilt of farmland and forest. The city skyline. The lake’s deep and endless blue.

Baskis takes one more step and falls in a slow-motion somersault, into the black abyss.

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