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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.

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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.”

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