GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — “I’m going to do it.” That was Joann Valenzuela’s immediate thought when she saw the TAPS flyer for a Mount Kilimanjaro climb for surviving family members.
And she did. Valenzuela and nine other survivors summited the highest peak in Africa Feb. 14, 2016, during a climb sponsored by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.
It was a coincidence, Valenzuela said, that the six-day climb peaked on Valentine’s Day, but fitting, considering the climb’s purpose: remembering and honoring their fallen service members.
As they scaled the mountain’s 19,341 feet, each of the climbers carried mementoes of their loved ones. Valenzuela carried letters that her husband, Staff Sergeant Edwin Valenzuela, had mailed the day he was killed in Bosnia.
She also carried a United States flag on which were written the names of 97 Soldiers from Grafenwoehr and Vilseck who were killed in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Even though her husband was never stationed here, Valenzuela wanted to take something honoring Soldiers from the garrison where she has worked as a School Age Center director since 2007.
“Honoring the memory of Ed goes beyond just him,” Valenzuela said. “We climbed the mountain in memory of our loved ones, but in support of all. It was important to recognize Soldiers from the community where I live now, to honor them and not let them be forgotten.”
What do you know about the top until you get there?
Valenzuela said she wanted to do two things when the group reached the top of the mountain: get a photo with the flag she carried and read the letters from her husband.
She got the photo eventually.
“It feels like there are a million people up there, with all the expeditions going up the different routes,” she said. “We had to wait our turn to take photos at the peak.”
When they unfurled the flag, some of the ink had smudged, though the names were still legible. The flag had been packed in a plastic bag, but one corner had gotten wet during a heavy rainstorm the day before.
She did not read the letters.
“I have read those letters once and not opened them since. I thought that would be the perfect place to finally re-read them,” Valenzuela said.
“But what do you know about the top until you get there? You’re freezing cold, your fingers are freezing, the wind is blowing hard, and you’re so high up, the air is so thin, that your faculties kind of go. I did not want to take any chance that I would lose those letters.”
Not sure that “hard” is the word
Though Valenzuela has always been active—she’s run half-marathons, snowboarded, gone bungee-jumping, even jumped out of an airplane—she expected the climb to be physically challenging.
“You’re carrying a 45-pound pack and walking eight hours. Even on the day we did just five hours, it was five hours straight up, so it’s not like it was an easy trek,” she said.
“And twice we had to hug huge rocks and inch around and up on these narrow, narrow ledges, and behind you, it is just straight down. I don’t know what we would have done without our guides.”
Still, when Valenzuela describes the climb, she does not focus on the physical aspects, but on the emotional.
“I’m not sure that ‘hard’ is the word,” she said. “I would say that it was very emotional, and cathartic. You’re walking with people who have all had the same experience, talking about your loved one’s life and what they meant to you.”
The group’s shared experience as survivors made them more determined to succeed, Valenzuela said.
“We were in it together and were going to make it together. We weren’t going to let anyone not make it to the top.”
They started up the final stretch on Feb. 13 at 11 p.m., using headlamps to climb through the dark, and reached the summit at 7 a.m. on Feb. 14.
“When we finally reached the top, I cried,” Valenzuela said. “Partly because I was tired, but mostly because I was thrilled and proud and thankful. And of course because I was remembering why I was there.”
In memory of one, in support of all
Today Valenzuela sees the challenge of running a half-marathon or climbing a mountain as a positive way to remember and honor her Soldier, and also support other survivors.
“You never forget,” Valenzuela said, “but you do continue to live. I can honor his memory by persevering and living life. I can get out there and celebrate life, and maybe help others remember and celebrate.”
Valenzuela points out, though, that it took her some time to arrive at that kind of response.
“This year it’s 20 years since I lost Ed, and I still remember what it first felt like. There were times I felt frozen, like I couldn’t remember how to do the simplest things. I’d lost my friend, my lover, my confidant. I’d lost a big part of my identity—I was the wife of a Soldier, and now who was I?” Valenzuela said. “But as hard as it is to believe when it first happens, your feelings do change. You never forget, but it does get better”
She credits TAPS, a not-for-profit organization that provides resources for those grieving the death of a service member, with giving her a community of support that helped her through the toughest times. She first came in contact with TAPS members at a memorial ceremony at Arlington Cemetery in 1997.
“I saw this group of people all sitting together, and there was something about them, this sense of warmth. I just had to go over and ask, ‘Who are you guys?’”
Since then, wherever she has lived, she has been involved in TAPS programs and support networks. Even when living overseas, she still tries to go to TAPS’ annual national seminar over the Memorial Day weekend.
“No one wants to be part of this club,” Valenzuela said, “but I have always said, especially in those first few years, the people who helped me and listened to me saved my life.”
“Now I go to events and participate in things—not just TAPS events, but also local events wherever I’m living—as a way to be there for others who are grieving, as people were there for me. I go because I get it, and may be able to help someone else.”