A Veteran Giving It Everything He’s Got
How honor, dedication, and purpose are fueling Wade Spann’s mission to Mount Brooks
by Laura Baldwin, No Barriers staff
When Wade Spann called, he was en route for the wilderness of Maine. It wasn’t a vacation, though; it was the latest destination on his expedition training plan.
For several weeks, Wade’s been traveling coast-to-coast, hiking dozens of miles and spending countless hours in the gym.
He’s been on a mission: Preparing for an early September departure to Alaska where he’ll join up with his team of veteran comrades as they get ready to summit Mt. Brooks in the Denali Range.
Between the guided training he’s already received from the Warriors to Summits expedition leaders and the work he’s done on his own, Wade is determined to be at the top of his game when the time comes to stand on the 11,890′ peak on September 11th.
A Sign From a Fellow Serviceman
It was back in late January when Wade met Julie Cane. They were both at a memorial service in San Francisco for a prominent figure in the veteran community. Jon Paulson, a relative of Wade’s, had passed away in 2016 after a long battle with multiple myeloma caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Though Wade had met him barely a year before, he said they had an instant connection.
Jon was an infantry platoon commander in Vietnam in the second wave of Marines deployed in 1965.He led 43 Marines and two Navy Corpsman, earning three Purple Hearts (though he declined a Silver Star) while being constantly exposed to Agent Orange.
After he returned home, he’d rarely discuss his experiences in Vietnam, though it always weighed heavily on his mind. “I never got over my tour in Vietnam. For years I wondered why so many died. Even though I was wounded three times, I didn’t,” he wrote.
“I never got over my tour in Vietnam. For years I wondered why so many died. Even though I was wounded three times, I didn’t” Jon Paulson
It was years later when Jon began penning his memories of the war to honor a promise he made to a fellow veteran who had passed away. Jon had vowed that if he survived the war, he would “give back in some way to those warriors and civilians who died and were so seriously injured, physically and mentally.”
Around that time, he was introduced to a veterans advocacy group and found a way to channel his feelings of guilt and anguish into a cause that would help veterans turn their lives around. Through his work, Jon met thousands of veterans and veteran supporters in the community, including Julie Cane.
Julie is a former SH-3 Sea King helicopter pilot for the US Navy who flew combat search and rescue missions in the Philippines. Now, she leads the Student Segment Marketing & Brand Strategy as well as the San Francisco Bay Area Veterans’ Team Member Network for Wells Fargo Bank. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Swords to Plowshares, a community-based nonprofit that aids veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area, an organization that Jon Paulson and his wife Dianne passionately and tireless supported for more than 20 years.
Familiar with Wells Fargo’s sponsorship of Warriors to Summits, Julie mentioned the program to Wade. It was late January and the application process was in full-swing.
“I took it as a sign from Jon himself to do this challenge and make myself heal through something alternative to what the VA would normally prescribe,” Wade explained. “I took that to heart, being there at his memorial service. This was the time for me to apply.”
Overcoming by Opening Up
His interest piqued, Wade went to the Warriors to Summits website to check out the program, curious to see if he was the type of person they were looking for.
After reading several bios and blogs from past participants, Wade discovered a common thread; everyone talked about overcoming the adversities of past traumas. “I thought about my veteran background—combat wounded, Marine, multiple tours in Iraq—and saw that this was somewhere I could fit in,” he recalled.
Wade served from 2001-2005 as an Infantry Assaultman, assigned to 1st Battalion 5th Marine Regiment. He deployed three times to Iraq. During his second deployment, he was wounded by an IED, pulled out of a burning truck by his platoon commander, and dragged to safety by two fellow Marines.
“I thought about my veteran background—combat wounded, Marine, multiple tours in Iraq—and saw that this was somewhere I could fit in.” Wade Spann
“I was nervous about applying and I had a lot of questions and concerns at first,” he explained. But he didn’t go through the process alone. Sarah Olear, the Warriors Service Coordinator for the program, was there to help Wade navigate the forms and questions. “Sarah helped me to articulate what it meant to me to be able to go on these expeditions.”
Looking back, Wade realized that opening up about his experiences was really the first barrier that he overcame. “I saw that it’s okay to say ‘hey, I have these issues and I need help getting over them,’” he explained. “There’s no harm in telling your story. We as a nation gain strength from people sharing their stories, so we can understand what it means to have a military that’s all a voluntary force. I want other veterans to know that if you think you’re going to apply, then apply—put your heart into it. Just put it out there.”
Finding a New Sense of Comfort
Two weeks before the first training expedition was set to start, Wade’s back started hurting. He’d been training pretty regularly, and strenuously, in order to be prepared on day one. He managed to put the worry aside, though, and remembered thinking “whatever they’re going to send my way, I can take it.”
In June, the team of veterans gathered for the first time in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, getting acquainted with each other and their four expedition leaders. The 10-day agenda allowed a day to acclimatize to the higher elevation before trekking to the summit of Mt. Elbert.
Once on the trail, Wade’s back pain became a distant memory: “When I got out there, I felt more and more alive, more and more like I had been training properly, like I had been doing the right things. So I put that pack on and started getting some miles under me, and it gave me confidence.”
That confidence remained as Wade reunited with the team a month later in Wyoming. He’d kept up with his training regimen, expecting the trek to Spider Peak to be even more challenging than the first. And he was eager to see how much progress he’d made, keeping a close eye on his Fitbit and viewing his teammates as “friendly competition.”
“When I got out there, I felt more and more alive, more and more like I had been training properly, like I had been doing the right things. So I put that pack on and started getting some miles under me, and it gave me confidence.”Wade Spann
Both the physical challenges and the camaraderie of being with fellow veterans reminded Wade of aspects of his time in infantry that he missed. And as the rain or the bugs or the aches of the day started to wear on them all, Wade realized he even missed the “misery” of his days hiking and hauling gear in the Marine Corps.
“I’ve probably annoyed my group with this,” he admitted, “ but I almost find that the more it sucks, the more it takes me back to my good old days. And I love it, I start to thrive in that. When everybody is cold and wet, I feel at ease, like this is where I need to be. You’re miserable, but you look around and everybody next to you is miserable and it’s just like ‘okay, we’re all miserable together, let’s do this.’ And whoever can crack a smile, they’re going to have the highest morale.”
Summiting Elbert lit a fire in Wade, and Spider fueled it. A few weeks later, he and his brother made a trip to Sequoia National Forest. Camped below an alluring peak, all Wade could think about was wanting to climb to the top. Soon, he had a wishlist of peaks that he plans to conquer. At the top of the list: Mt. Brooks.
Drawing Strength From An Extended Rope Team
So far, the experience has been thrilling but also humbling for Wade. He’d hiked and camped before, but never attempted actual mountaineering or crossing a crevasse. Working with the expedition leaders, he said, has been very inspirational: “Day in, day out, they do amazing stuff for us. They’re out there struggling with us and teaching us. I know I couldn’t do it on my own, so having them teach us is everything.”
“Day in, day out, [the expedition leaders] do amazing stuff for us. I know I couldn’t do it on my own, so having them teach us is everything.”Wade Spann
He also feels humbled by the support Wells Fargo has provided to the team. “They extend their generosity to cover everything we need and they’re more than willing to help us,” he expressed.
From the day he met Julie to recent introductions with other bank employees at post-expedition events, he acknowledged Wells Fargo’s commitment to Warriors to Summits “really says a lot about what they value; it sort of carries through the whole organization.”
And, Wade said, he’s got one more major supporter backing him: Jon Paulson. “Whether you knew him for two minutes or a lifetime, he was very inspirational and someone you wanted to draw from,” he said. “And so I feel like, when I’m out there, he is too. I carry his speech about Vietnam with me. I carry that in my pack. I feel like he’s walking with me and I draw strength from that.”
The Final Summit and a New Beginning
Thinking about Alaska, Wade seemed less concerned about the physical challenge ahead and more about the mental and emotional tests he’ll face.
“It’s like riding a roller coaster—you get to the top but then you have to come down,” he said. “I know after the end of this Denali trip I’m going to have a void to fill. And I’m going to have to find a productive way, a healthy way, to fill it.”
“I feel like, when I’m out there, [Jon] is too. I carry his speech about Vietnam with me. I carry that in my pack. I feel like he’s walking with me and I draw strength from that.”Wade Spann
Wade said he’s already thinking of new trails he wants to hike, new mountain to climb: “I’m a mission-oriented type person and if I don’t have that after this Denali trip, what else am I going to do? Am I going to let things fall through the cracks back to the way they were—not productive, not healthy—or do I make a conscious effort to change that? And I think that’s what I’m trying to set myself up for success by making plans for after Denali to continue on being productive as well as continue on finding goals and setting them and going after them.“
When Wade’s expedition is complete, he’ll return to basecamp and be asked to make a pledge. The pledge is an opportunity to work toward a meaningful personal goal and create a lasting connection to the No Barriers community. Whatever Wade decides, one thing is for sure: he won’t be alone. Everyone who’s been a part his Warriors to Summits journey will forever be on his rope team, and he’s going to have plenty of summits ahead of him to enjoy.
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