Alaska Air National Guard 'Guardian Angels' assist wounded warriors up Denali

TALKEETNA, Alaska -- Alaska Air National Guard pararescuemen -- or PJs, as they are more commonly called -- aren't just helping wounded veterans down Mount McKinley. This year, they're helping them up, as part of a three-week, rehabilitation-oriented expedition that started June 24.

Three of the 212th Rescue Squadron's PJs are supporting the Combat Wounded Veteran Mountaineering Challenge, a grass-roots program out of Tampa, Fla., that assists veterans in recovery by helping them push themselves to succeed.

"The climb is secondary," said Staff Sgt. Bill Cenna, one of the PJs. "It's really about getting these guys out and allowing them to challenge themselves."

The PJs got on board with the project through their connections with the Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna. The school is providing the guides for the trip.

Several of the guides expressed confidence and enthusiasm for having the PJs as part of the guide staff, noting their medical skills, experience and team-player attitudes.

"If I wash a dish, I can throw it over my shoulder and know someone's going to catch it," said Matt Montavon, one of the civilian guides, who has been contributing to this mission since the veterans started training in the spring of 2010.

As the PJs provide medical and logistical support for the team, they will also be recording valuable medical research for the effects of high altitude and exertion on one veteran, a double-lung transplant recipient, according to Navy Capt. David Olson, the founding member of the Mountaineering Challenge.

The program is already making a positive impact in wounded warriors' lives, according to silver-star recipient Sgt. (ret.) Victor Thibeault.

"I got stripped of my career," Thibeault said. "This makes me feel like I am still a part of that team because I'm dealing with guys who are dealing with the same thing. I still have a home away from home."

After the Denali climb, the people involved in the nonprofit organization, including the veterans, have bigger plans.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Jon Cummings wants to bring their stories back to patients at Walter Reed Medical Center, a major military hospital treating combat-wounded veterans. He meets service members there whose lives have been turned upside-down, and who do not know how they are going to put it back together, he said.

The program is summed up in its motto: Vulneror non Vincor, which means 'I am wounded, not conquered.'

You can follow the team through the Alaska Mountaineering School's blog at

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