Army veteran Benjamin Breckheimer is the first Purple Heart recipient to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks in each of the seven continents.
It’s a feat that only a few hundred people worldwide accomplish, and Breckheimer did it with a fused ankle – one of many consequences of nearly losing his leg after driving over an IED in Afghanistan.
“It’s definitely been a thing of growth,” Breckheimer said. “The journey started for very selfish reasons and morphed into something I never really imagined.”
Besides his accomplishments, the message the 37-year-old really wants to share is this: No matter how terrible life might feel, no matter how much physical and emotional pain, it’s possible to climb out of the darkness.
That’s because at one point, the former Army staff sergeant and reservist nearly killed himself.
‘The light switched off in my head’
It was in 2015, after a failed attempt to climb Mount Everest due to an earthquake and avalanche that killed at least 18 people. Breckheimer and his team survived by ducking behind an ice sledge on their way to base camp.
He’d been working as a surgical technician in Florida after medically retiring from the Army in 2013. He came home dejected, questioning whether he wanted to continue climbing. Divorced and alone, he felt lost. He started drinking a lot.
One day, sitting on the edge of his bed, he was about to put a handgun to his temple when he took one last look at his two dogs, he said.
Then something clicked.
“The light switched off in my head that this was not OK,” he said. “I started thinking that I would be abandoning them (my dogs), and that instead of taking away my pain, I would be creating a lot more pain for my family and friends.”
His mindset shifted and he became more intentional about life. He reached out to his friend and surgeon, Dr. Joseph Hsu, who helped him get a job at the hospital where Hsu worked in North Carolina. There, Breckheimer met his current wife, a nurse.
“I try to tell people that time is really the best medication,” Breckheimer said. “That’s a really hard thing to accept, because it could take weeks or years. For me, it was almost six years.”
A Wisconsin native, Bruckheimer enlisted in the Army Reserve as an operating room specialist in 2002. He was 18 years old. After more than two years with the 452nd Combat Support Hospital at Fort Benning, Georgia, he volunteered for active duty and was reassigned to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
He then volunteered to deploy for a year to Baghdad, Iraq, with the 10th Combat Support Hospital out of Fort Carson, Colorado.
“It was one of the most rewarding but also mentally draining years of my life, just seeing so many casualties,” he said.
He came home and two years later, reclassified as a cavalry scout and was assigned to the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, out of Fort Lewis, Washington. He deployed in July 2009 to Afghanistan, and finally felt like he was where he belonged, he said. Two months later, he was injured.
He had a concussion, a perforated eardrum, and pelvic, vertebrae and bilateral femur fractures. His lower right leg was nearly severed.
Breckheimer ended up at Brooke Army Medical Center under the care of Hsu, whom he’d first met in 2005 when the two served side-by-side in Iraq. He spent four years in a limb-salvage program, but never regretted pushing for deployment, he said. “It’s what I wanted.”
‘Not a bulletproof amazing human’
Hsu, now a professor of orthopedic trauma at Atrium Health’s Musculoskeletal Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina, conducted dozens of surgeries on Breckheimer, who dealt with multiple setbacks due to complications, infections and even hardware breaks.
“To even have kept it (his leg) and even function at the level that he does … it’s not medical. It’s not surgical. It’s not science,” Hsu said. “It’s grit. It’s him. It’s that resilience.”
Breckheimer’s story is especially inspiring, and transformative for those who hear it, because he’s open about his struggles with mental health, Hsu said.
“(Breckheimer) is not a bulletproof amazing human. He shares the story of how he almost killed himself,” Hsu said. “It’s so important to see someone who is so accomplished talk about it.”
The idea of reaching the Seven Summits was, initially, a misguided attempt to prove himself to his ex-wife and win her back, Breckheimer said.
“Looking back, it was childish and funny,” he said.
While it wasn’t easy finding a mountaineering agency that would help him with his goal, Bruckheimer eventually connected with Dennis Broadwell, of Mountain Gurus. Broadwell encouraged him to keep trying after failed attempts at summiting Mount Baker and Mount Rainier.
Climbing Seven Summits for himself
Breckheimer made his first summit in 2014 on Mount Elbrus in Russia, Europe’s highest peak at 18,510 feet. On top of the mountain, he threw his wedding ring — which he’d carried on a necklace for years — into the void.
“I felt overwhelmed and overjoyed,” he said. “I was climbing no longer for her, but for me.”
After the first failed Mount Everest attempt, he scaled Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest in 2017, followed by six more summits in the next four years. Each took dogged determination to overcome his physical pain and limitations.
“I definitely had days when I was cursing myself with, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?” he said of trekking along steep snow and icy crevasses.
“I remember hating every day of basic training, but then when you graduate and you see what you’ve accomplished in those 10 weeks, it’s such a huge sense of accomplishment. That’s what I feel in the mountains.”
So how did he afford the expeditions? He drained his savings for the first three, then connected with sponsor ONETEAM Colgan Foundation. Three female benefactors from New Zealand have provided the majority of his funding since 2017, he said.
“I called them ‘my Kiwi angels.’ They are incredible people,” he said of the women, who want to remain anonymous.
Seven Summits finale in 2021
Breckheimer’s Seven Summits grand finale was in June 2021 in Denali, Alaska. All along, he’d been hyper-focused on the task at hand, but on Denali, he was able to take in the scenery and the company of others.
“I enjoyed every single day on the mountain,” he said. “I was always smiling.”
The 2021 climb was his second try at Denali, which requires climbers to carry their own gear weighing almost 120 pounds. Two things that helped him succeed were a new, special ankle brace and training with rock climbing at the suggestion of a mentor, he said.
Breckheimer and his wife, Mallory, now live in Tega Cay, South Carolina, and own Avalanche Coffee Company.
He’s a volunteer for Purple Heart Summits, a program that mentors wounded warriors in the mountains, and is working on a book about his life. He said he’s planning many more climbs around the world, because mountaineering is therapeutic for him.
“If there is something you want to do, do it. Don’t be afraid to take that leap, because you never know — it might create something new in your life,” Breckheimer said.Read comments