Brian Mockenhaupt Wants More than Another Risky Adventure
After close calls in combat zones and on mountaineering expeditions, the journalist is taking a very different kind of journey
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Brian Mockenhaupt told his story to producer Mike Kessler for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I saw Kevin drop down, and then my feet gave out a little bit underneath me. Kevin had fallen into a crevasse, and I was beside him. And so at this moment, real concern started to rise up. Like, we’re in a bad situation. This is not good.
I live in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I’ve spent most of my adult life as a journalist. Much of that time was spent covering conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then writing about the military, the physical and psychological effects of war, and outdoors and adventure sports.
I was in the Army. I served as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division. I served two tours in Iraq shortly after the war started in 2003. And then in 2004 and 2005. We did a lot of mounted and dismounted patrolling, regularly received small arms fire, mortars, rockets. Roadside bombs were a pretty big threat. After I got out of the Army, I returned to journalism, and went several times to Iraq and Afghanistan to embed with Army, Air Force, and Marine units over there.
I was in Southern Afghanistan and I was embedded with some paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, and we’re out on a foot patrol going down this dusty road. I had been walking with this soldier and we came to this crossroads. Part of the patrol went to the right, he went off to the right. I wasn’t sure which way to go. I chose to keep going straight. We continued on towards the village, and about five minutes later there was this massive explosion.
We could feel the concussion roll through our chests. I looked to the right and there was this big cloud of smoke and dirt rising up through the trees. The soldier that I had been with had walked over a patch of ground, and a massive bomb detonated under him.
He lost his legs, and then he ended up getting an infection. He died about a week later. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I had followed him. Maybe it would’ve blown up under me, and at the very least, I probably would’ve been hurt pretty badly.
Then, about a week later, I was with the same unit. We spent about 24 hours in this small compound in the farm fields in southern Afghanistan surrounded by the Taliban. And that was also kind of distressing. Those moments in Afghanistan certainly caused me to start reconsidering what I was doing and why I was doing it, but I still went back to Afghanistan a year after that. But that seed had been planted. Is this worth it? Why am I doing this?
I think in some ways what kept me going back to Iraq in Afghanistan was touching on something that I had experienced when I was in the military. That risk, that danger, that as awful as it is, sometimes there’s that part that’s enticing because the rest of the world falls away. In that moment, nothing else really matters other than what is happening or what might happen in the next few moments.
It’s an environment I knew from the military. It was being back as part of this group with this comradery, with this sort of feeling of being protected by the people around you. Being part of that team.
But each time I would go out and do that, there would be this question, like, Why am I doing this? I’m doing this voluntarily. And that’s where spending time in the outdoors started to replace for me some of the intensity and excitement of being in combat environments.
In 2011, I climbed a mountain in Nepal with several wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, one of whom, this guy named Steve Baskis, had been blinded by a roadside bomb. A year after that, he and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together. We were with a group and I was guiding him up the mountain. Then, together with a couple other friends, we were going to climb Mount Elbrus in Russia. The highest mountain in Europe.
It was Steve and myself, Matt, Kevin, and Dan. Elbrus is considered to be a pretty straightforward mountain. We were climbing without a guide. And this was some foolishness, and some sort of naivete that we thought about a lot in later times.
So the five of us had set off at about midnight for the summit; we had been climbing for a few hours. Matt started to not feel well, and wanted to turn back. So Kevin, Steve, and I turned back with Matt. Dan was feeling pretty good.There were some other climbers who were around us on the mountain at the time. So we split up. Dan continued on; we were gonna descend down the slope and cross back over towards the camp.
The wind really started kicking up, and it turned into a whiteout. We were gonna make our way back to base camp. Sort of out of the peripheral vision to my left, I saw Kevin drop down. Then my feet gave out a little bit underneath me. Kevin had fallen into a crevasse, and I went in up to about mid-thigh. So fortunately for Kevin, he was short-roped to Steve; he stopped Kevin from falling in further. I backed out of the crevasse, and we didn’t realize until that point that there were crevasses all around us that were covered up by this fresh layer of snow.
There was a thunderstorm, a snow storm parked overhead and you could almost feel the electricity in the air. And I thought, Are we gonna get struck by lightning? What have I done? Why am I out here? How did this come to pass?
We got Kevin pulled back out of the crevasse, sort of collected our thoughts for a moment. And now it was the four of us making our way back, and the storm continued. Kevin was out on point and he would take a few steps and just stab his trekking pole around. If it came to a place where he stabbed through the snow, if it was a very big crevasse, we’d walk around it or he would step or jump across. I’d say it was about 18 hours after we had started, we made it back into the base camp.
It was hard for me to know change at that moment, and maybe to fully understand what waas happening. That time of the crossroads in Afghanistan, I was pretty shaken up by it, and I felt really lucky. And that time on Elbrus, the immediate thing that came from that was immense relief, but it took a lot longer for all of those things to stew and to meld for me to ultimately be able to make some sense of what those events, what those incidents, and all these other ones had meant in my life.
I started to realize that I had spent a lot of time looking elsewhere for some understanding of myself. And I’d chosen to believe that I could be defined by the experiences I had had, by the stories I wrote, by the places that I had been. It started to feel more and more like I was chasing something that was unattainable, that I wasn’t getting there. I was still aware of this question, this pretty uncomfortable question and curiosity about Who am I, what am I about?
As I’m journeying kind into and through myself, that led me then to this place of wanting to be able to share in other people’s journeys. Perhaps offer them a companion to walk with on the path for a while as they’re trying to navigate where their life is taking them, where they’re feeling stuck, where they’re struggling.
I went back to school in 2019 for a three-year program for clinical mental health counseling. I now see a mix of kids, a lot of adolescents, couples, families, and adults who are working through anxiety, depression, and trauma; just sort of human things we all struggle with.
I still love the outdoors, but I think I’m drawn less to the adventure and exploration, drawn less to the risk. Because in this season of my life, I’ve turned that focus inward to the adventure of exploring myself and helping others do the same.
Brian Mockenhaupt is a psychotherapist and yoga instructor in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army, and has written for Outside, the Atlantic, Esquire, and Backpacker magazines.
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