On Mount Kilimanjaro, emotions are as varied as the views. Between the exhilaration of approaching the tallest mountain in Africa and the dread of the descent, there’s everything from rainforest and alpine desert to the arctic ice cap of the summit.
The closer you get to the top—over 19,000 feet above sea level and under a blanket of stars—the more the mountain’s contradictions collide.
“You’re looking down at your feet, suffering,” said DAV member and Marine Corps veteran Michael York, “and then you look up at the sky and you’re like, ‘This is so beautiful.’”
York was one of eight DAV members, including National 1st Junior Vice Commander and Marine veteran Coleman Nee, to trek Kilimanjaro in June. The trip was sponsored by the DAV Department of Massachusetts and organized by Veterans on the 48, a nonprofit founded by York to foster physical and mental wellness through the great outdoors.
York has been summiting mountains since 2017, when he and his father took on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington on a whim. It was on that hike that York realized he had some unresolved personal issues and that the physical challenge of hiking a mountain forced him to face them head-on. Within a year, he hiked all 48 mountains above 4,000 feet in elevation in New Hampshire and planted the seeds for a nonprofit to help other veterans.
Then in early 2023, York was introduced to Nee by fellow veterans advocate and Purple Heart recipient Kurt Power. They all had the same dream: Summit Kilimanjaro and help more veterans.
For Nee and the DAV Department of Massachusetts, Kilimanjaro was a unique opportunity to welcome a new cohort—most of them post-9/11 veterans—and show them what the organization is all about.
“The department was pretty quick to say, ‘You know what … we can support that,’” Nee said.
The partnership between the DAV Department of Massachusetts and Veterans on the 48 began closer to sea level, with the department hosting the nonprofit for a wilderness first-aid course on one of its properties. The potential Nee had envisioned was immediately clear. Veterans learned about DAV’s mission and services and started asking for help with benefits claims.
“It’s just kind of like a perfect scenario where we have this facility where we can do all our training,” York said, “and then everyone can get the help they need for whatever they’re going through.”
After years of having claims denied and feeling repeatedly dismissed, York decided to try again with a DAV benefits advocate. Within a couple of months, his claim was approved.
“It was just this weight that just falls off your shoulders that I’d been carrying forever,” he said.
York, along with the rest of the Kilimanjaro crew, eventually joined DAV.
“I’m always excited for the future of DAV and those we serve when I see leaders like Coleman Nee engaging and mentoring younger veterans,” said DAV National Membership Director Doug Wells. “When chapter, department and national leaders spend time reaching out to veterans and welcoming them into the organization, they help create more leaders and exponentially strengthen our ranks for generations to come.”
Nee and Wells noted that members don’t need to climb a mountain in a different continent to reach more veterans. Members can organize local hikes or other outdoor adventures and even partner with existing groups to broaden their reach.
Of course, there’s no denying that an experience like Kilimanjaro was particularly and uniquely powerful.
“There were some people struggling with some pretty significant events that had happened to them in military service that were traumatic for them,” Nee said. “But more than one of them told me that this group and the ability to talk to each other, and just, you know, the fact that we’re all on this common mission, ‘is like one of the happiest moments I’ve had in the last 20 years.’”
As he approached the summit, exhausted after six days of hiking and fighting the altitude, Nee had tears in his eyes. In one direction, he saw Kenya. In the other, Tanzania.
“It just felt like one of the greatest accomplishments in my life,” he said.
York is still processing the experience and still has those “holy crap” moments when he realizes what he, Veterans on the 48 and the DAV Department of Massachusetts pulled off.
“We will never forget this group of people we were with and what we did and what we experienced,” York said.
“We’re bonded for life.”