Editor's Note: Former Green Beret Nate Boyer's open letter to Colin Kaepernick led to a meeting, a dialogue and a spot on the sidelines during one of 2016's most-debated moments … and that's a long list. It also received more attention than some of Boyer's other 2016 achievements, including one he'll attempt to replicate in 2017: Climbing the 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro as part of a charity effort. More from the soldier-turned-long snapper-turned-mountaineer:
It's been a weird year for me … a really, really weird year.
I feel like the Colin Kaepernick saga has overshadowed everything else I've tried to do. It's not a complaint as much as a conundrum: I knew I would catch a lot of flak for sitting down with Colin, listening to him, and then standing next to him with my hand on my heart while he knelt for the national anthem. But I did it because I believe that if we all want things to change for the better, it starts with humility.
Maybe that image is the direction our nation should be headed? Two people, who couldn't be more different and probably don't agree on much at least were willing to sit down for a couple of hours and listen to one another without making judgments or accusations.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team's NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers in San Diego. Former Green Beret Nate Boyer, who wrote an open letter to Kaepernick at ArmyTimes.com, stands at the quarterback's left shoulder.
Photo Credit: Chris Carlson/AP
Yes, I was frustrated that Colin didn’t vote. Yes, I want him to stand again for the anthem, and I still hope that day will come where we can stand together. But if the main reason NFL ratings are down is kneeling during the anthem, not something like players in the league physically abusing women, then we still have got a long way to go, America.
But back to the rest of 2016, a year that began just as this year is beginning – with the final fundraising push and preparations before heading to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
It would be my first trip to Africa since 2004, when I arrived in the Darfur as a stowaway aboard an aid flight destined for refugee camps on the Sudan-Chad border. I was in my early 20s and completely lost – no sense of purpose, no pride in anything really, just searching.
I didn't know exactly what I was searching for in the Sahara, but quickly I found something within me: Selfless Service, which I'd later identify with as one of the Army's core values. The short time spent there over 12 years ago changed me forever; I remember thinking that if I could save just one person over there it would be well worth the risk.
READY TO CONQUER
The 2016 trip would begin the day after the Super Bowl. We weren't raising money to cover our travel costs and climb, or even for retired Marine Cpl. Blake Watson, an above-the-knee amputee who was going with me. We were doing it for those in East Africa who go without basic necessities every day, including access to clean water.
Conquering Kili came about through conversations I had with Chris Long, now a defensive end for the New England Patriots and one heck of a humanitarian. His foundation had rolled out a new initiative, Waterboys, to raise money for clean water wells in East Africa via the locker rooms and fan bases of NFL franchises. Its goal: 32 wells dug, one for each NFL team.
An official "Waterboy" for each team would lead the charge. Chris wanted me to be involved as an ambassador in some way once I was released from the Seattle Seahawks, but I wanted to do more: I told him I would climb Mount Kilimanjaro not just to raise awareness for the clean water crisis, but also to continue the mission of service from a veteran perspective.
I wanted to be a part of the fight because I know how much service-filled challenges fuel my soul.
Nate Boyer and retired Marine Cpl. Blake Watson visited multiple water wells prior to their climb, which raised money (more than $100,000) and awareness for the Waterboys initiative.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Nate Boyer
The first couple of days near Arusha, the city that sits at the base of Kilimanjaro, were spent visiting the well sites funded by the nearly $120,000 Blake and I had raised. Both of us could feel the appreciation from the locals, who thought Blake was incredibly brave for even attempting such a feat as climbing Kili.
During one visit to a school next to one of the solar-powered wells, village elders who'd come to greet us saw Blake "step" out of our vehicle to begin the arduous process of attaching his prosthetic leg. The robed men stood in awe, leaning against their walking sticks as two very different worlds collided. The juxtaposition of tradition and technology was blaring, but so very necessary – just like the solar-powered wells.
Blake's attempt at Conquering Kili was a valiant one considering he'd only received his new prosthetic just a month before we left. Toward the end of the first day of a six-day climb, he fought back tears as he had to turn back. He told me that I needed to finish it, and so I did.
I took off and continued past the first two checkpoints before dawn. The next day I went all the way to base camp before reaching the summit that night and heading all the way back down 25 miles out the park entrance. Fifty miles and 19,341 feet of elevation in just two days. I thought to myself, "I've still got it."
I've got no qualms with other veterans service organizations climbing mountains all over world with wounded warriors, but if there is no service behind it for that veteran involved, I think something critical is missing. That service is who we are, and if it is not a part of our life in everything we do, then we return from these mountains still missing something, still empty.
Boyer, at the base of Kilimanjaro in early 2016.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Nate Boyer
We'll tackle Kili again in 2017, but this time with a much bigger group, including Chris Long and some former NFL players. Like veterans, they often have trouble transitioning back to "civilian life" after their playing days. Some of them need another challenge.
Already on the list of retired NFL players, which could still grow are: Linebacker Chad Brown, offensive linemen Nick Hardwick and Cory Procter, and wide receiver Mark Pattison, who is attempting to be the first NFL alum to climb the highest peak on all seven continents.
Also on the trip:
- Kirstie Ennis, a former door gunner in the Marine Corps and above-the-knee amputee due to a helicopter crash, who now has her sights set on the 2018 Paralympics in snowboarding.
- Daniel "Doc" Jacobs, a Navy corpsman and below-the-knee amputee who recovered from his 2006 injury at the hands of an improvised explosive device to try out for several pro baseball teams.
- Lisa Keys, the wife of one of my best friends, Master Sgt. Brad Keys, a Green Beret who was tragically killed in a free-fall parachute jump during a training mission in 2012.
- Staff Sgt. Jonathan McLaughlin, an active-duty Green Beret from the Seattle area who led the Seahawks out of the tunnel with the American flag for the Salute to Service game in November (the game I raised the "12th Man" flag). Jonathan was wounded in Afghanistan just a few months ago, and is climbing to honor his fallen comrade.
Our preparations are already well underway, and we'll be leaving for the mountain in early March. To learn more about our cause or to donate, visit Waterboys.org/kili.
Nate Boyer is a former active-duty Green Beret who played college football at the University of Texas after transitioning into the National Guard. He was signed by the Seattle Seahawks as a 34-year-old rookie long snapper in 2015, but released prior to the regular season.