“I had my digging knife with me,” says Staff Sgt Mark Zambon, recalling July 5, 2012, the day he reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. “I got to the top of the mountain, found an isolated spot on the rim of the volcano crater and dug a hole. The last time the knife hit dirt before that was Afghanistan soil.”
Into the hole at the top of Africa—19,341 feet above sea level—Mark placed the dogtags of two of his closest friends who died in combat. “The whole eight-month training program for climbing Kilimanjaro was for me, the climb itself was for them.”
That training program was uniquely difficult for Mark: He’s a bilateral amputee who lost both legs on his sixth deployment as an explosives technician (more about that in a moment).
In addition to all of the equipment anyone climbing the highest mountain in Africa would need, Mark used state-of-the-art carbon fiber SideStix forearm crutches (provided to him by the Semper Fi Fund) to make the journey to the top and back again.
“Kilimanjaro is a bunch of routes.” he explained. “We took the Lemosho route up, which is the longest route; 42 miles from start to finish. It took us 8 days. Then we took the popular Coca-Cola route back and we made it down in 36 hours.”
“It was a butt-kicker,” Mark says of the eight-month training program. “But it comes with a realization that this is what comes with obtaining great physical prowess. It’s the idea that you have to put the human body through that in order to become the machine that’s capable of making the climb. The training is never easy, but I was outperforming able-bodied people on Kilimanjaro.”
An avid outdoorsman born and raised in Marquette, Michigan, Mark is the second oldest of six brothers. He left for boot camp in the summer of 2003, a few weeks after graduating high school, with the goal of becoming a bomb technician.
“I’ve always had a fascination for the destructive power of explosives,” he explains. “That’s a very rare opportunity in life, where you can accept a massive amount of risk and not be seen as careless. That extreme level of danger was part of the draw.”
Mark’s service took him to Iraq for three deployments from 2004 through 2007, and to Afghanistan for three more through 2011. On his fifth deployment, to the Musa Qala district, Mark lost part of three fingers on his left hand.
“I didn’t lose the whole fingers,” he explains. “The distal joint is the last joint in the finger. The explosion blew off 3 distal joints on my thumb, index and middle finger. I wasn’t totally non-functional with that hand, and it actually didn’t have much of an effect on the work I did.”
“After I lost my fingers, experienced team leaders were in high demand,” he continues. “I felt that this was an opportunity to go way above and beyond what’s asked of me. My last two deployments, we got rated as one of the top-skilled EOD teams. We did some great work on the ground, saved a lot of guys’ legs and arms and lives.”
After the hand injury, Mark went back to Afghanistan for a sixth deployment. On January 11, 2011, in Sangin, a town in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, he stepped on the pressure switch that triggered the improvised explosive device that claimed both his legs.
“I remember the sensation of flying through the air and landing on my right shoulder,” he recalls. “The corpsman got the tourniquets on my legs within a minute. That saved my life, no doubt. Leg injuries, you see so much over there. When I realized my legs were gone, I remember thinking, ‘all right, that’s that, we’ll move forward from here, see what we can do with prosthetics.’ ”
Less than a week after the blast, Mark was being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. About a week after that, he was transferred to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. He met Semper Fi Fund representatives at both facilities, and the Fund subsequently provided a broad range of assistance. In addition to the SideStix forearm crutches (“I use them for hiking today”), the Fund helped him purchase his first home, his first vehicle, and assisted him with training and transportation for athletic events.
“I see the Semper Fi Fund–and Team Semper Fi and America’s Fund–as an entirely selfless and wholly committed entity on the recovery path,” Mark says. “Semper Fi Fund is a powerful force.”
“My legs? That’s a byproduct of serving,” he says. “I am fiercely proud of my sacrifice. I’m a servant of my country. I consider it a vast privilege to walk the path I have. I think serving something bigger than yourself is a powerful source of fulfillment in life, of meaning and purpose, that’s very hard to find anywhere else.”
Learn more about Mark: http://www.markzambon.com/