Freedom Peak 2020

Freedom Peak 2020 participants on a training hike at Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas // courtesy The Warrior's Keep

Local Military Veterans Take on Kilimanjaro

You can call it a mountain-top experience, and you’d be accurate in doing so. Usually meant to figuratively describe a once-in-a-lifetime, awe-inspiring occurrence, the phrase took on quite a literal meaning for a group of U.S. military veterans last year.

They were led by United States Marine veteran John Hardin of the McKinney-based nonprofit, The Warrior’s Keep. After an application and selection process, and six months of training, these 10 men traveled to Tanzania, Africa, to summit Mount Kilimanjaro.  

According to John, who is the executive director and co-founder of The Warrior’s Keep, it was such a successful venture that the organization is sponsoring a second expedition, called Freedom Peak, to the nearly 20,000-foot-tall mountain this summer.

Freedom Peak 2019 excursion // photos courtesy of The Warrior’s Keep

While the definition of success is different for everyone, the moment spoke for itself. “We all struggled on the way up,” John recalls. “Every single one of us struggled. It was not easy, and every single one of us had to push each other to make it to the top.

“Once we all hugged at the top and made it, we knew we wouldn’t have done it without that person next to us. There’s no way. I think we will take that feeling with us for the rest of our life, and I think that that’s one of the biggest things we gained from it.”

When The Warrior’s Keep was first established in 2016, this is – almost – exactly what he had in mind. 

John, who enlisted in the Marines his junior year of high school and served his country admirably from 2005 to 2010, went on to college after leaving the service. But admittingly, he recalls struggling to make friends in college, and even after graduating and entering the work force. 

“I kept a lot of connections with my military buddies and some of my old high school friends that I had connections with,” he explained, “but it was really tough to try to make new friends, and I just felt so socially awkward.”

From personal experience, John knew being outdoors and hiking or climbing was therapeutic. After searching for an organization or other resources that would be able to help him sort through this phase of his civilian life, he came up empty handed. His solution? The Warrior’s Keep. 

“Getting out there and being on the trail by yourself allows you to be in your own space and get a different perspective on things,” he said. “But when you do it as a group, the therapy happens organically, because you get out there on the trail with like-minded individuals.”

John said the idea to climb – and not just hike – came from what summiting a mountain symbolizes. “Through overcoming whatever it is they are all dealing with.”

“Every time I get up there, there are tears,” he said. “You see grown men with beards that have fought wars, and you get up there and there is just such a sense of accomplishment.” 

Military veteran and Allen resident Matt Foster, who served with the United States Army from 2003 to 2007, hikes with The Warrior’s Keep on a regular basis, and will be joining 14 other men and women for the upcoming expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in June.

Allen resident Matt Foster

Matt, who served overseas in Iraq, also faced social challenges associated with transitioning to civilian life after leaving the military. However, like John, he felt that group therapy in a non-traditional setting would be beneficial for him.

“There’s always something that resonated with me about hiking and being outdoors,” Matt said. “I like the camaraderie that you can build with people while you’re both out there hiking.”

In addition to summitting mountains, The Warrior’s Keep meets at area parks and trails to hike on a regular basis. Arbor Hills in Plano is a favorite location of the group; all members of the community are welcome to join in on the weekend hikes, not just military veterans. 

“We opened those hikes up to the public because we want veterans to bring their family members, friends and even just supporters that want to learn about our organization,” John said.

According to Matt, The Warrior’s Keep has helped him feel a sense of belonging. “They really try and get veterans back outdoors, because that in itself is therapeutic. But they also want to connect them with other vets to get them back into a community setting.”

In consideration of the situation surrounding COVID-19, the team currently has plans to continue training with hopes that the trip will not be canceled.

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