After nearly losing his leg in an IED explosion while serving in Afghanistan, Ben is defying the odds and climbing the tallest mountains in the world, thanks to a groundbreaking brace.

News | 2 years ago

Veteran Overcomes Combat Injury to Complete "Seven Summits"

After nearly losing his leg in an IED explosion while serving in Afghanistan, Ben is defying the odds and climbing the tallest mountains in the world, thanks to a groundbreaking brace.

Update: Four years after we last spoke with Benjamin Breckheimer, he's conquered his biggest challenge to-date... Completing the "Seven Summits." Read along to learn more about this incredible achievement and the obstacles he had to overcome to reach this milestone. 

Information current as of January 11, 2022

While climbing the world’s six tallest mountains – and being an avid skydiver - Benjamin Breckheimer never experienced fear of heights. But that feeling overwhelmed him in May 2019 as he attempted to conquer Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley). “At 16,000 feet along the ridge, I lost my composure,” Ben says. “I wasn’t feeling very confident in my climbing abilities and had a meltdown on the mountain.” He and his fellow climbers decided to abandon the pursuit and go home.

But Ben went back in June 2021 and reached the top, making him the first Purple Heart recipient to conquer the “Seven Summits.” “It was definitely a relief,” he says. “And for once I really just enjoyed the journey on the mountain, taking in all the scenery. I didn’t take time to enjoy the first six because I was so focused on getting to the summit.”

He credits Joseph Hsu, MD, and other Atrium Health care providers for his amazing feat. Ben and Dr. Hsu met during the war in Iraq – well before Ben’s catastrophic injuries – and they have remained friends ever since, even outside of physical therapy and new braces. The two are so close, Ben plans to host a soft launch of his new mobile café,  Avalanche Coffee, at Dr. Hsu’s house. “He’s been vital,” Ben says. “He invited me to Charlotte to work with him and make connections with physical therapists and physicians. I wouldn’t have been able to summit otherwise.”

Ben’s Seven Summits

Mount Elbrus, 2014

Mount Kilimanjaro, 2017

Mount Everest, 2017

Aconcagua, 2018

Carstensz Pyramid, 2018

Mount Vinson, 2019

Denali, 2021

[Video footage shot before the COVID-19 pandemic and may not reflect current hospital policies]

Information current as of November 9, 2017

Now a decorated veteran, Benjamin Breckheimer initially served in the military as an Army scrub technician (assisting surgeons during operations) in Iraq. He didn’t realize it was there he’d meet and befriend a surgeon who would one day play a vital role in reconstructing his leg.

For six months at Ibn Sina hospital, Ben worked closely with Joseph Hsu, MD, an orthopedic trauma surgeon. As they treated soldiers in the operating room, Ben soon felt a new calling.

“For the first time, I saw someone (a US soldier) die right in front of me. And it didn’t seem fair. This kid could have only been 18 years old. He had so much to live for. I felt I had to do my part and serve in a different capacity.”

Ben changed branches in the Army, becoming a cavalry scout. He deployed, in a combat role, to Afghanistan two years later.

Wounded in Action

Three months into his tour of duty, Ben was seriously injured by an IED explosion in the field. He nearly lost his right leg, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and had multiple pelvic and femur fractures.

With his life on the line, an emergency team medically evacuated Ben to military hospitals in Afghanistan and Germany, where he received emergency surgeries.

“My heart dropped when I heard about the explosion,” recalls Dr. Hsu. “It takes something out of you when you know someone.”

Ben’s leg was in incredibly bad shape. He’d suffered bone and tissue loss and needed limb salvage surgeries to be able to use his foot again. (Limb salvage surgery aims to remove tissue and bone affected by injury while preserving the limb to allow for the best possible level of function.)

Ben knew just the orthopedic surgeon he wanted operating on his leg.

“I had seen him (Dr. Hsu) put his heart into helping his patients, and the work he did in Iraq for not only our soldiers, but contractors, civilians, children – was truly amazing. He gave them all every chance to have the best outcome during their recovery.”

Over a four-year period, Dr. Hsu performed dozens of intricate surgeries on Ben’s leg. The outcome of which was a success, resulting in Ben’s ankle and foot being fused together and his leg being spared. To relearn how to use his leg, Dr. Hsu introduced Ben to a groundbreaking rehab program that would change his life.

Innovative Program Leads to Recovery

Despite major advances in limb salvage surgery, evidence shows that some patients whose limbs are saved have poor long-term functional outcomes.

When working as a military orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Hsu recalls seeing firsthand a considerable number of wounded soldiers with severe foot and ankle injuries choose to have their damaged limbs amputated, even two to three years after their injury. Mostly because, at the time, there were no good solutions that’d allow these patients to regain enough functionality to return to their previous level of activity.

“There was a real gap, but now we have a solution,” says Dr. Hsu.

Enter the Return to Performance Pathway program, led by Dr. Hsu at Atrium Health, which helps patients regain function after severe limb injuries.

The key to the program's effectiveness, besides a lot of hard work and determination on the part of the patients, is an innovative brace, known as a passive dynamic ankle-foot orthosis (AFO). The AFO is specially designed to store and return energy to the limb, while providing stability and support for pain relief and improved functionality. Basically, the brace acts like a prosthetic without the amputation.

Ben, who was treated in Texas, at Dr. Hsu's parent program, Return to Run, is one of the many patients the rehab program successfully helped. But even with the AFO brace, it wasn't always easy.

“I didn’t fully realize the extent of my painful injuries and was hoping to get back to my brothers on the front line. My recovery was mentally and emotionally draining. It was one of the darkest periods of my life, personally and professionally.”

Fortunately, he was able to make to the other side.

“It took time, but eventually I pulled through. I owed it to myself, my family, friends, Dr. Hsu and those who died for my freedom to live and push through any hurdle that came my way.”

Climbing Mountains

With incredible resiliency, Ben has set his sights on a new challenge – climbing the seven tallest summits in the world. Earlier this year, he became the third Purple Heart recipient to climb Mount Everest.

“I’m climbing for the people who died in combat and didn’t get the opportunity to achieve their dreams. They give me motivation to work through difficult training and dangerous climbing conditions. A lot of people train their whole lives to climb Mount Everest and don’t succeed or even make it home to their families.”

During his climb, he witnessed extreme temperatures, avalanches and even the deaths of other climbers. Despite the miserable conditions, he kept going. With his right foot and ankle fused together, he had to be strategic with each step, compensating with his left leg during a climb.

Once he reached the top, he revealed a flag made from soldiers’ uniforms.

“I was able to accomplish the climb, thanks to a lot of heart and effort. I’m grateful to Dr. Hsu for all he’s done for me through my recovery and as my friend.”

In December of this year, Ben plans to climb Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, his fourth mountain. In addition to Mount Everest, he’s already climbed Mount Elbrus and Kilimanjaro.