Learning to Listen on Denali
Margaux was there to climb Denali in memory of every name she and her team had collected on their American flag. But mostly, she was there for one person: Ashly Moyer, her best friend and fellow soldier whom she’d seen killed in Iraq eight years before.
I was on the same climbing route as an Air Force Pararescueman, on loan to the National Park Service, camped with the dozen other climbing teams 6,000 feet below Denali’s summit. The wind had picked up the day after our arrival to the camp at 14,000 feet, and it sounded like a busy freeway as it hammered the ridge above us. We all stood like meerkats outside our tents watching the skyline, as if the wind might die at any moment and allow us to advance on the route.
After three days of waiting, I began wandering the camp, and that’s when I met Margaux’s team, named Mission Memorial Day. Margaux was the only woman and a former Army Military Police. The three guys were Brian, a retired Marine; Nick, a former Airborne medic; and Josh, a former SEAL and the MMD team leader. Their mission was to carry that American flag, covered in the names of KIA, to Denali’s summit for a victorious picture.
Margaux stood just outside our conversational circle, seeming to listen. I wonder if she heard the way I mumbled “Air Force” as quickly as I could and slowed to pronounce “Pararescue” when one of the guys asked about my background. Or how I shared the places I’d deployed in the form of questions about their own deployments.
Now that I know her story, I wonder if she understood what it was that I was doing, trying to establish the value of my experience. I see it quite a bit on social media: veterans who are self-conscious about their military experiences and looking for validation, wanting to fit how contemporary culture understands “the heroic veteran.” My generation’s war started almost simultaneously with reality shows, and Facebook and all other social media came along soon after. It’s come to feel like a person’s value is determined by the quick anecdote, videos, or photographs that he or she decides to share. As though context and a full telling of the story don’t matter. And so I would fall, and sometimes still do, into that same trap, choosing my words carefully and frontloading the conversation with evidence of my combat experience, so I’d feel validated.
I didn’t ask Margaux about her military experiences while we were stuck at that camp. I talked with the boys. They mentioned something about the metal plate Margaux had in her head, but I brushed her off as just another girl who ended up in an unfortunate situation while deployed. The wind persisted, and neither the MMD team nor my team reached the summit that year.
In the year that followed, I started writing. It began with my friend Roger, a prior Force Recon Marine turned Pararescueman, who found PTSD therapy when he began tattooing his own legs in his garage in Alaska. Eventually, all of us at the squadron started offering Roger our bodies for him to work on. I saw the deep positive effect Roger’s art had on him and how his story shaped the way he made art. I was suddenly appalled by the war story Americans hear, about men with stiff upper lips dodging pyrotechnics, the one Americans hear in place of the truth.
“It’s the prostitution of experience, man,” Roger liked to say. He’d go on about how so many vets can’t stop posturing and letting the world know that they really were in the shit, as if their characters couldn’t speak for themselves. I thought about how I told my own story, and I started to wonder about the stories of people who don’t brag about their service. And right about then, I received an email from MMD.
Josh and Margaux had decided to come back to Alaska and give Denali a second try, and this time they brought with them four flags covered in names. They asked for my help getting from the airport in Anchorage to Talkeetna where a ski plane would fly them to the Denali base camp. That gave me two hours to hear Margaux’s story. We packed my SUV to the brim with their climbing equipment and hit the road. Margaux sat in the back seat, and I told her that I wanted to hear how she was wounded.
Her story starts in 2006 when her 30-soldier platoon, seven of who were women, deployed to Baghdad. It was Margaux’s second yearlong deployment. She and Ashly hated each other at first. In Margaux’s words, they saw too much of themselves in each other, and it wasn’t until they realized that they were so similar that the two became best friends.
“We would sit on each other’s beds at night and talk about stuff that bothered us,” Margaux said. “She was my therapist.”
Their mission was to train the Iraqi Police in Baghdad. But mostly, they drove around the city and gathered dead bodies from the sidewalk. On December 4, Margaux was in the turret of her Humvee when it drove over an IED. Her head hit the back of the turret and she woke up in a cloud of smoke. She rested for three days, suffering constant headaches, but then returned to patrol.
In the months that followed, Margaux and Ashy studied for promotion together. They were competing to see who could get their sergeant stripe first.
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On March 3, the day that their promotion board was scheduled, they went out on patrol. Margaux sat in her Humvee and Ashly sat in the one behind. An explosion jolted Margaux’s vehicle, and in the rear view mirror, she saw that Ashly’s Humvee had been flipped upside down and that it was ablaze. Margaux ran from her Humvee toward Ashly’s, but her sergeant caught her and forced her to the ground. “There’s nothing you can do,” he said. “She’s gone.”
Ten days later, Margaux developed Bell’s Palsy, paralyzing half her face. She was sent to Germany for treatment where doctors diagnosed her with PTSD and denied her request to return to her platoon in Iraq. Back in the States, Margaux was also diagnosed with Trigeminal and Occipital Neuralgia, most likely caused by the trauma she sustained when she hit her head on the turret. The Bell’s palsy was most likely due to the stress of Ashly’s death.
She underwent brain surgery to treat the neuralgia but it was unsuccessful. “I have a huge scar on the back of my head,” Margaux said, “But I’m a girl. I have hair. So nobody can see it.” She sustained a traumatic brain injury as well. The doctors still don’t have any clear answers for her, but Margaux thinks it’s all related.
She spent three years heavily medicated, watching T.V. and participating in whatever veteran programs she could find. She felt guilty for leaving her platoon and wished that she and Ashly could have switched places. Margaux dreaded the anniversary of Ashly’s death and tried simultaneously to forget and to sanctify the day with a bottle of wine, in the silence of her house. She refers now to war as “a nightmare that won’t go away.”
Through one veteran program, Margaux found climbing and Josh. She liked the idea of working with a team to climb a mountain, just a group of people on a long walk, suffering together. Every March 3rd, Josh accompanies Margaux on a long walk through the mountains to suffer for Ashly.
“If you want to hear my story,” she said, “I’ll tell it to you one-on-one so that I can tell if you’re listening or not. It’s not really my story. I’m trying to make Ashly live on.”
Unfortunately, Margaux’s opportunity to tell her story to someone willing to listen is rare. Josh described a time when both he and Margaux attended a veteran function, and out of 100 vets, only two had been deployed as long as Margaux—23 months total.
“But everybody just thought that she was my girlfriend,” Josh said.
They both told me about the time when Margaux was pulled over with Josh in the passenger seat, and after seeing the Purple Heart license plate, the police officer thanked Josh. Josh was quick to correct the officer.
But none of this seems to bother Margaux. She dismisses it with a laugh. It seems she sees her story as sacred, one that the people involved have entrusted her with, to share only with those who will listen.
Margaux and Josh summited Denali on that second attempt. They unfolded all four flags bearing over 450 names, including Ashly’s, on the summit. They snapped a picture and descended.
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I have yet to summit Denali after two attempts of my own. Sometimes, I’m embarrassed when people ask if I’ve climbed it, and I have to say, “Well, yes. But I haven’t summited.” Those who don’t climb big mountains just don’t understand. The summit is arbitrary compared to the process of climbing, that long walk. Stories about war experiences are not so different. The truth about the heroes of my generation, such as Margaux, is that there is no singular, victorious picture they can show that defines their experience, because deliverance is arbitrary. The walk through grief and suffering is the true war story. We can’t afford not to listen.