MARQUETTE - Mark Zambon climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last month, but not just for himself.
Marquette native Zambon, who lost his lower legs to an improvised explosive device while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan in 2011, trained hard for the trip to Tanzania, which he made with Tim Medvetz and Medvetz's organization, The Heroes Project.
But the accomplishment was about much more than climbing a mountain.
Above, Mark Zambon, right, and Tim Medvetz celebrate reaching the top of the Barranco Wall, a 800-foot climb that’s part of the journey up Mount Kilimanjaro. (Photo courtesy of The Heroes Project). At right, Mark Zambon and Marta, who now is his wife, attended the Carrier Classic basketball game featuring the Michigan State University Spartans on the USS Carl Vinson on Veterans Day 2011. (Mark Zambon photo)
"The journey of making it to Africa was for me and my recovery," Zambon, 27, said in an email. "The summit of Kilimanjaro was for my two friends SSgt. Josh Cullins (killed in action in October 2010 in Operation Enduring Freedom) and Sgt. Mike Tayaotao (killed in action in August 2007 in Operation Iraqi Freedom) whose dog tags I climbed with around my neck and buried atop Mount Kilimanjaro with my own EOD (explosive ordnance detail) digging knife that had dug on numerous IEDs.
"They have a nice view with glaciers to the south, the volcano crater to the north and a powerful view of the expanse of Africa to the east and west. With love in my heart I did this," he said. "And in this, pushing through days of pain, passing able-bodied climbers, climbers falling victim to altitude sickness in front of us and not making the summit; remembering these sacrifices with such fierce pride and knowing that many thanks and thoughts could be given at achieving such a triumphant feat, but instead giving thanks to OUR BOYS with love, achieved for me a place of peace, knowing I had conquered for them. To give back to those who have given so much for us."
When he was in Marquette for a visit last August, Zambon talked of his plans to climb Mount Aconcagua in Argentina with Medvetz, but instead decided to make the Kilimanjaro ascent. Reaching the peak was a sign he'd come a long, long way in the process of recovering from the blast, which was actually the sixth he'd survived while in Iraq and then Afghanistan.
"(The climb) was also a process that came full circle in terms of the healing," Zambon said. "In March of last year I had just gotten a cast off my left arm due to the ulna bone being broke in the blast that took my legs. I was struggling to push myself in my wheelchair up a steep sidewalk at the Naval Hospital (in San Diego) and a lady had to get out of her truck at the top of the hill and, with a sympathetic look in her eyes, help me push myself up the hill. It was a very humbling experience, to go from being a very able-bodied man, leading an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team on numerous combat deployments, to simply not being able to carry myself up a sidewalk.
"Later, in May of 2011, I was at a graduation party for a good friend's wife over Memorial Day in Santa Clarita, Calif. I had sustained a soft tissue injury in my right leg from overuse in prosthetics the day prior so I was in my wheelchair again. The main party was on a nearby park's basketball court and it was a hilly area. I remember sitting in my wheelchair at the party, deeply saddened at my lack of participation in events, not being able to help my good friend set up the party and I remember seeing a rundown lean-to built up on one of the hills. It looked just like something my brothers and I built in the woods as kids growing up in the U.P.
"And I really wanted to go up there and check it out: BUT I COULDN'T. Couldn't walk up a small hill. And not just Mondays through Fridays, nine-to-five and get a break and go up on the weekends with my injury, it was present every moment of every day, no break. Rich feelings of anger, sadness and feeling defeat were very real.
"To go from these very low points, along the journey of healing and to regain so much ability, was heartwarming. And to be on a 19,000-foot mountain and to be outperforming able-bodied individuals at the task set forth, greatly restored a sense of wholeness that had been lost in the injury."
Zambon, the son of Barbara and Nick Zambon of Marquette, is a 2003 graduate of Marquette Senior High School who joined the Marine Corps a few weeks after picking up his diploma. He's still an active duty Marine, living in California.
And he's a newlywed. He met Marta Bartkova online in the summer of 2011 and in person in November when she flew in from her native Czech Republic.
"(We) had an amazing time together and I got to know her for the patient, understanding graceful lady she is and fell in love," Zambon said. "So when our mountain climb plans changed from Aconcagua In February to Kilimanjaro in June, I flew overseas and we spent New Year's Eve together in Prague and then a short vacation in her charming home country, meeting her family, friends and eating lots of goulash. We came back to the U.S. together and got a nice apartment downtown in San Diego and stayed buckled into the mountain climb training.
"Her encouragement and shared suffering were so right in aligning myself for this mountain, they became a source of strength and inspiration. As well as the smile she put on my face when I'd be in a lot of pain but would see her shining smile and know that all is well," he said. "(I) proposed after the mountain climb, late one night on a Coronado beach under a full moon and married the love of my life on Aug. 9th."
Zambon is by no means resting on his laurels. He's training for another challenge.
"Another injured Marine and myself are in the process of joining up with Race2Recovery, a 31-member team of injured British service members who will be racing the famous 2013 Dakar Rally Raid in South America," Zambon said. "This team's aim is to show the world that the extraordinary is achievable even in the face of great adversity... This undertaking is all being made possible by the contributions of sponsors and donors so please help, Yoopers! Check out their website to see more. www.race2recovery.com/," he said.
"After the Dakar Rally is completed my new wife and I will be seeking orders to fill an instructor's billet at the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal to teach students the EOD skill set."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is email@example.com.