Despite Setbacks, Veteran Aims to be First Purple Heart Recipient to Climb Seven Summits

August 7, 2019Maggie BenZvi
Coffee or Die Photo

On April 25, 2015, Benjamin Breckheimer was climbing Mount Everest. A U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient, with titanium rods in both femurs and his right tibia, he was pursuing an amazing opportunity to summit the tallest mountain in the world. When an earthquake shook the Nepalese side of the mountain and triggered an avalanche that killed 22 people and injured 61 others, Breckheimer was between Basecamp and Camp 1.

“It was happening so slowly,” said Breckheimer during a phone interview with Coffee or Die. “It gave you a lot of time to think. It was definitely more terrifying than getting blown up. Getting blown up you don’t see an explosion coming, but when you see this huge white cloud come rolling at you, you have no idea what’s behind it.” 

Luckily surviving only with a dusting of snow on him, he had to head home.

Breckheimer has faced all the dangers, joys, and disappointments inherent to mountain climbing on his quest to become the first Purple Heart recipient to conquer the Seven Summits: the tallest peak on each continent.

After five years as an operating room specialist in the Army, Breckheimer reclassified to cavalry scout in 2009. He swiftly found himself on the opposite side of the operating table when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan.

Breckheimer at sunrise on Mount Kilimanjaro in 2017. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Breckheimer.

“I just remember we were kind of joking along through our radios, just kind of bullshitting, and the next thing I know, everything went black,” recalled Breckheimer. “I started waking up and coming to when I heard all these alarms in our Stryker vehicle go off, and my friends are screaming my name, just seeing if I was alive. I was trying to catch my breath, and I was choking on dust and dirt and fumes. I probably let out the most god-awful scream they ever heard, but I guess it was probably comforting to them to know I was still alive.”

Breckheimer had a concussion and a blown eardrum, as well as fractures in his vertebrae, pelvis, and legs. “My lower right leg was actually hanging by a strip of skin, basically,” Breckheimer said. “They managed to save it, which was surprising to me because after the blast went off, I looked at my legs, and I didn’t see anything below my right leg, below my knee. I kind of wrote it off as gone.”

Medic William Swanson, left, and Breckheimer on deployment in 2009. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Breckheimer.

Both physical and mental recovery was hard. He had intended to spend a full 20 years in the Army and was disabled after only 11. “I went through that really rough time after getting wounded and divorced, that really dark time — heavy drinking and dealing with thoughts of suicide, and even coming very close to pulling the trigger,” Breckheimer said. “I honestly got started climbing in hopes that my ex-wife would come back to me.”

His early forays into climbing only added to his disappointment. “The first two mountains I attempted were Mount Baker and Mount Rainier in Washington State,” he said, “and I didn’t reach the top of them. That got me a feeling of, here I am trying something new and I’m failing again.”

Breckheimer at the Wounded Warriors 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division welcome home ceremony. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Breckheimer.

But a friend who was an experienced guide urged him to not give up and took him to Mount Elbrus in Russia, the highest peak in Europe. “For the four years after I was divorced, I would carry around my wedding ring,” Breckheimer said. “I had it with me on this expedition and was finally able to let this little 4-ounce thing that was the weight of the world on my shoulders, I finally was able to let it go — and I actually threw it off the summit.” 

Mount Elbrus was the first mountain he summited, and he said that was when everything changed. “I wasn’t climbing for her anymore,” Breckheimer said. “I was climbing for me.” 

After an aborted attempt at Mount Kilimanjaro and the tragedy on Everest, he took a year off from climbing. During that time he started working with American 300, a group that sends mentors to military bases around the world. They sponsored a new climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. 

Breckheimer and group atop Carstensz Pyramid/Puncak Jaya with American 300. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Breckheimer.

“Myself and 17 others went and pretty much laid siege to the mountain,” Breckheimer said. “That’s when I topped out on my second of the Seven Summits.”

The leadership at American 300 was impressed by Breckheimer. “They were seeing what the mountains were doing for me,” he said. “That self-confidence I lost from being wounded to getting divorced was starting to get built back up with each climb.” 

As a result, American 300 started a program called Purple Heart Summits to help Breckheimer and other Purple Heart recipients find purpose through mountaineering. 

In 2017, Breckheimer successfully summited Mount Everest on the second attempt. Here he holds a flag that reads “Mt. Everest Redemption.” Photo courtesy of Benjamin Breckheimer.

Breckheimer has now climbed six of the Seven Summits, including reattempting and successfully summiting Mount Everest on May 22, 2017. Unfortunately, his attempt this past spring to summit Mount Denali, his final peak, was unsuccessful due to weather conditions. They made it beyond 14,000 feet before deciding to come back down.

“Everything was good, the team was healthy, I was feeling strong. We were definitely on pace,” said Breckheimer. “We collectively made a team decision and decided to nix the rest of the expedition. They were calling it an ‘atmospheric river’ on the mountain — that’s the first time I’d ever heard that term.”

Camp I on Everest’s southside in 2015. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Breckheimer.

Breckheimer isn’t giving up. He turned around from that disappointment and spent part of July guiding a group of Purple Heart recipients up Mount Rainier, and he plans to head back to Alaska next year to attempt Denali again. He is always looking for new challenges for himself and is excited to switch things up and ski to the South Pole once he’s finished the Seven Summits. 

“Before I went to Everest, I could close my eyes and I could see myself standing on the top and screaming at the top of my lungs out of happiness, crying, fists up in the air like Rocky,” said Breckheimer. “And that’s not what I had on Everest. I was really — not disappointed, but my immediate next thought was, ‘This is it. I lived my dream. So, what’s next?’”

On top of the world. Breckheimer at Mount Everest’s summit in 2017. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Breckheimer.

Maggie BenZvi
Maggie BenZvi

Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!

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