In this episode, Steele Kelly, author of When Sinners Like Me Come Home, tells the story of a soldier who risked his life countless times in battle. But like so many others, he couldn’t cope with the day to day existence once he returned home.
After losing everything he loved to depression, anger, and PTSD, Steele traveled alone to the Himalayas to find the pieces of himself that he’d left on the front. This episode is important because so many former soldiers never speak about their emotional turmoil. Steele’s account gives us an insider’s view into why veterans are different after war.
This episode is not safe for listening around children or young ears or anybody who is really uneasy or unsettled by descriptions of violence or just difficult topics. You’ve bene warned, this episode is challenging to listen to at certain points but again, it’s an important topic. It’s a miracle that Steele is alive today and you’ll see, by the end, why.
It’s also a very humanizing one in that soldiers as tough and capable and as much respect as we have for them in their abilities, they are still human beings and they deserve to be able to express what they’ve been through. The more people like Steele who lead and actually have the courage to talk about their emotional turmoil, the better things are going to be for everyone. Now, here is our conversation with Steele Kelly.
Steele Kelly: I didn’t really believe in the white picket fence, a dog, a wife, some kids. I was like, that’s just some Hollywood fable. That doesn’t really exist in the real world. Then I met this girl Payton and I immediately was like, no, this is a real thing.
This just isn’t a fable.
I fell so head over heels for her, I could have married her the first month and been totally okay with it. I met her about a month after I got home from Afghanistan. For the first six months, I’m in this honeymoon phase of not only a new relationship but just being back home from war.
I can get in my truck, I can drive somewhere, I’ve got freedom, I can just go to a coffee shop if I want to.
This whole thing was a honeymoon phase on top of the new relationship. So, one day, we’re driving my truck and we’re going somewhere, I was like, let’s go to dinner.
She was like, okay, yeah and then we’re just kind of driving, I make some sarcastic joke, I always call her unicorn because of the hot, crazy girl matrix, and he says unicorns don’t exist. I was like, you’re such a unicorn.
She turns around and she goes, “No, you’re the real unicorn. You’re just so loving, kind, gentle and caring, you wouldn’t hurt a fly. You’re the real unicorn.”
I kind of smile and hold her hand really tight. Then, my mind just starts like flashing back through different things in Afghanistan and I’m questioning. Like, if you only knew that other side of me, what would you think? Would you still love me, would you still think of me this way? What are you basing your opinion on?
A New Future
Charlie Hoehn: I want to talk about the emotional journey you had when you got back? The heart of your story, the challenges you faced.
Steele Kelly: Yeah, it’s weird. You have this honeymoon phase like I explained, and everything’s so great. You don’t even care, your coffee may suck and you’re like, it’s from America. All right, works for me.
I say that the honeymoon phase usually lasts anywhere from six months to a year of getting back to the States, and for me, nothing from deployment bothered me until like I started counting our one year anniversaries and they start noticing, hadn’t really been sleeping over the last year, I was getting four hours of sleep at night.
I just kept waking up, couldn’t stay asleep. I started getting very irritable with my friends, with my family, with Payton. I knew it, but I just couldn’t do anything about it.
I mean, I know a lot of people will say you can always do something about it, but it’s really difficult, especially when you’re sleep deprived on top of it.
I end up moving to Montana, and Payton was going to come with me.
I moved out ahead of her, and she’s like, “Hey, I got to finish my contract at work, as soon as that’s up, I’m going to move out there, I want to have a life with you, I want to marry you, we just need some time, we have some stuff we need to work through, you got some stuff you need to work through.”
Long story short, she ended up not coming out there. She came out to visit in November, and then a week later, she text me, said that she was done and that she’s moving on with her life without me.
In retrospect, after writing the book, there’s a whole lot of reasons. But then after that, I had a couple of friends commit suicide and there were guys where I would never guessed in a million years that they were struggling.
Steele Kelly: I want to caution the listeners if you have little ears in the car or can overhear, the following story is pretty graphic, it’s pretty traumatic and it is definitely, this is a trigger warning for people. Involves a woman and some other things.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, again, just to reiterate, if you’re uncomfortable, squeamish, don’t like this type of story that involves violence or whatever, tap out now, that’s totally fine.
Steele Kelly: All right, it’s inter-deployment, after we closed down the FOB in western side of Afghanistan, they moved us to the capital in Kabul. We’re out of the ISAF headquarters, which is kind of what all the high rank people.
We were there by proxy, and I just gotten off 24 hour shift, hadn’t slept and my squad leader comes in, he’s like, “Hey, Kelly, grab your kit, grab your rifle, we got to go.”
I’m like, “What’s going on?” We don’t normally get paged up for this, especially in this region of Afghanistan. He goes, “There’s a riot outside, they’re worried that if it backfires towards us, we’ll need to stop containment.”
I was like, “All right, I’ll be in operation center in five minutes.” I grab my kit, probably take some extra grenades for this, and head over there. The platoon leader’s there, we’re only taking like eight guys with us, wasn’t very far from us.
He’s like, “All right gentlemen, here’s the deal. There’s a riot outside the gates, apparently a woman was burning the Koran. They’re really upset, we’re worried that’s going to come back towards us. We’re going to go out there, we’re just going to serve.”
He’s like, “Gentlemen at this point in the war, we are not to intervene. Let me repeat myself, we are not going to do anything. The Afghan national police and the Afghan national army are handling this. We’re just making sure it doesn’t come back to the base.”
We’re like, all right. We headed out, we’re standing there and you hear them just losing their mind. I mean, people are throwing rocks, you see fire, there’s smoke, it smells like diesel. I mean, burning tires, everything, we’re sitting there and we can’t come any closer. Afghan national police are in front of us, and we’re just kind of watching.
After 20, 30 minutes of walking around, you can tell that Afghan national police has under control, they call us back to base, it’s not worth us getting hit by a suicide bomber just waiting.
This whole time, I’m just wondering, what is in there? What could that be? What are they freaking out about? By the way, they said a woman was burning the Koran, why haven’t I seen a woman? We go back to base and I’m like, I’m just sitting on it.
Anyway, she’s burning that in the middle of the street, and then someone yells, “She’s burning the Koran.”
Not only are you burning the Koran but you’re also a woman in this country.
Then they start yelling at her, they started throwing bricks at her, and she’s trying to get away. She jumps up on one of the rooftops and starts running and these men are chasing her down. Throwing rocks, she’s running and then she kind of trips and you see her fall and roll towards the end of the building.
Then she gets up and starts running again, and then one of the guys gets up to her, catches her, pushes her off the roof to the men below. Then they take turns stoning her and then the video kind of cut out where they were gang raping her, supposedly, is what the news place reported.
Then her father came through the crowd. I’m thinking, you know, dad’s going to stop this, thank god dad got here. He doesn’t. He lets them light his daughter on fire while she’s still alive.
When you see that, you’re like, oh no, people are actually capable of this. This actually happens.
Context is Everything
Steele Kelly: When the issues with Payton started happening, she told me she was going to go backpacking in Columbia and El Salvador with another one of her girlfriends and immediately—
You know, in the military, we’re at war, you don’t have time to be sad, you hit everything with anger or funny, those are the two.
I got like, irate. Do you know what happens to white girls when they go backpacking or any woman for that matter, alone in the back woods of El Salvador, Columbia? I was like, hello, drug cartel land.
She was like, “I don’t think I’m asking my dad permission here.”
I mean, I had said a lot more colorful things, just losing my lid.
She’s like, “I’m going, it’s going to be safe, we looked through the backpacking websites, we’re on safe places, but we’re going to take the local buses.” I didn’t tell her but all I could picture was her face on that woman’s.
I just dragged my feet for the next month and was like, “You’re out of your mind, what are you thinking, you’re naïve,” and like really laying into her. In hindsight—
Charlie Hoehn: She had no idea the context that you were speaking from, from that point, yeah?
Steele Kelly: I met with my squad leaders and he’s like, you know? When you joined the military looking for adventure, a lot of the time, there’s a lot of reasons, but this adventure is enticing. Maybe she just want to see an adventure of her own
I still never explained the reasons.
Then there was a couple of times she go out with the girlfriends and for me, I really don’t care. Okay, you’re going to go out, where are you going, then where are you going, what time are you going to be there, what time are you home, let me know you made it home safe.
Because in my mind, I’m jumping to the worst. She’s dead in a ditch, she’s kidnapped, and I want to know where to start looking.
But I had never explained those things. Especially now, you know, we’re not sending 150,000 troops to Afghanistan and Iraq every year. The amount of younger dating interface there is, it’s harder to have friends who’ve dated combat vet too and know this is just a normal thing, it’s not about control.
Rightfully so, she started to wonder, is he just wanting to know what time getting home because wondering if I’m going home with someone else or is he—is this control?
The way coming out it with anger was, that’s control, that’s angry, why are you getting angry, I didn’t text you that you’re home safe. We finally had a blow up when I called her until she woke up at 4:00 in the morning.
It’s like 12, no problem. One, two, bars close at three. I’m panicking at four. In my own mind, I know it’s totally irrational. But my fear and panic in picturing that woman in Afghanistan, I’m thinking that. It’s like, call her till she woke up.
I was like, “Is it really that hard to text me I’m home safe? That’s all you have to do.” I flipped my lid, but there was no context to it.
Looks like he’s got anger problem. So, I totally understand, you know? It was things like that, that eventually broke the camel’s back. But I couldn’t see at the time.
I bought a ring, I was going to ask her. We broke up before I asked her.
Charlie Hoehn: You had these really traumatic things happening to you after this year or so that you’d gotten back from deployment and what happened to you then?
Steele Kelly: I started drinking. Alcoholism runs in my family pretty deep. A lot of my extended relatives had a hard time with alcohol, but for me, I was just looking for something I’d experience and since I got back from overseas.
Anhedonia is kind of like, you don’t feel happy, you don’t feel sad, you just feel kind of in the middle. You may fluctuate a little bit but you never get the like, I’m so happy right now.
The only time I felt the negative, the anger was fear based, you know? Other than that, there was nothing.
Charlie Hoehn: You were numb?
Steele Kelly: Yeah, pretty much. The hard part was that, I started dealing with that, I was like drinking because it was the one time where I was just like stress free. I was like, finally a weight off my shoulders. But then, I was living alone with just me and my dog out there, snowing all the time, and everyone just drinks.
I was having some nightmares. It is what it is.
Steele Kelly: So, I just started drinking more and more, and then I realized about February—you’re drinking a lot, you drink like a gallon of whiskey a week, and you’re the only one who lives here.
Then I tried to curve back, but I started getting the shakes and the sweats. The problem was the period of like reprieve, being stress free started getting shorter and shorter. Then I was more depressed when I was sober, so I started drinking earlier and earlier and drinking longer.
I just kind of started to spiral out.
The thing that finally led to going to the Himalayas was, my dad came out to visit and go snowmobiling. We took a picture, we’re in the parking lot, and he’s so happy to be with his son. You can just tell, he’s so happy. I’m smiling but you can tell I’m not happy.
From a Dream
Steele Kelly: I was drinking one night and had this dream and this dream, I’m in the Himalayas and I’m climbing to the top, for some reason I just know I’m in the Himalayas in Nepal.
I get to the top and leave the engagement ring on the summit and just rappel off. Then I wake up and I go to my chemistry class, I’m sitting there and started Googling mountains climb in Nepal. Then I find the mountain.
The same one from my dream.
I mean, obviously they’re all mountains, but that’s it man, that’s it. I bought a flight for three weeks later.
It’s just a few miles from Everest but it’s still a big peak, I think the summit is 20,000. I probably saw it in like a movie or something, but no, it was just kind of—I never been climbing, I’ve been rappelling. I bought the flight, and I was like, right, you got three weeks on everything about mountaineering. I learned things along the way from military about cold weather training, I’ve been rappelling, and I wasn’t too concerned.
I went through all the paperwork to permitting and this and that, have that sent out there, and I went to the doctor, went to travel doctor and got medication for Giardia, dysentery. And then I get to three—one’s called nephatapine, that’s congestive heart failure drug and essentially, layman’s terms, you pee out the fluid from the chest cavity as it starts filling up.
The other one is Dimox, and it changes the acidity of your kidneys to get more red blood cells.
The third one is Dexamethasone, it’s a high powered steroid, and supposedly, the way it works is you pee out your cerebral spine fluid when the brain’s out swelling the skull.
For the doctors who are listening to this, I’m breaking it down to layman’s terms.
Probably Going to Die
Charlie Hoehn: Right, par for the course, just typical drugs, yeah, why not.
Steele Kelly: I had read about them on this climbing site, and I was like, if I need to take these, I’m probably going to die, but I’d rather have them than not have them, better safe than sorry. Me and the doctor talking and we’re going down the list, he’s like all right, you need Vicodin, in case you break an ankle out there, he’s going down the list.
Then it gets to those three and he goes, why do you need these? He used to be a doctor actually at the Everest base camp hospital and tell me where I was going and he’s like, “You do realize that Dexamethasone is banned in a lot of your European countries? It’s a high powered steroid and it stops your immune system from functioning?”
Charlie Hoehn: Right, either way, you’re probably going to die.
Steele Kelly: Well, there’s a 3,000 foot cliff in front and a huge mountain in the back. If you undershoot it, you crash on the side of the cliff and you hit the mountain in the other side. I didn’t realize so many flights per year crash and kill everybody on board and most people walk in from Kathmandu to avoid that airport.
I was like, “No, I don’t have that kind of time, I’m not scared of flying, get me on that bird.” I think for me, it’s like, the whole reason I think I knew I need to go out there was I was looking for lost pieces.
Things I felt, like I want to find my old self again, that happy person. I was just kind of like, yeah, it’s a risk but maybe it will lead to me finding it. I wasn’t avoiding risks like in hindsight, I probably should have walked five days. I didn’t.
We show up at the Kathmandu airport and the pilots get out in flip flops, and he’s got like the sunglasses on and he looks like he’s hungover. He loads the plane, and I get on with eight other people, I’m thinking like, I don’t know if I should get on this plane with this guy. But whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.
I get on the plane and we start flying. He opens up his side window and takes a napkin, wipes the front window off the plane.
“My gosh. I’m thinking, what did I just get myself into? “
It’s cloudy, it’s raining, you can’t see this runway we’re flying into, already looked up is like, I don’t’ know, size of a football field. I’m like, how are we going to find this, as he’s wiping it off with the napkin.
We land and you get off and there’s just memorials on the trail of people who died in plane crashes. It’s insane.
It’s Found within You
Charlie Hoehn: It’s like a comedy routine.
Steele Kelly: It got pretty difficult, but yeah, it took about 18-ish days to walk to Tengboche with my guide. We’re going to go from there up to this town called Jacun, spend the night there and then go to base camp the following day. The CDC recommendation is roughly once you go above 10,000 feet, you sleep anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 feet higher at night time.
You climb high during the day, then go low. There were several trekkers who died when I was there who did not adhere to those guidelines. It’s very dangerous. I was adhering to that, I was acclimatizing. I spent a couple of days at 12,000 feet and I was like, all right, I’m feeling good again, keep going.
So I went to Jacun, waited my three days, felt good. I headed out to base camp. Right before I headed out to base camp, what’s really interesting is I had emailed Aubrey Marcus at Onnit. I had listened to one of his podcasts on Joe Rogan’s show and he’s talking about him and I think it was his girlfriend at the time.
A couple of years ago, they had gotten into this argument and he would stop answering text messages and phone calls, and eventually he kind of realized that, “Oh I am doing this because she hurt my feelings. I know not responding hurts her feelings.”
So I’d messaged about some of the realizations I had about Payton and I and how it really helped me. So I find myself in the Himalayas and I was like, “He’s never going to get it but yeah, I will send a nice message. Everyone likes a nice message every now and then.
So right before I left I saw I had a response from him. He is like, “Hey my friend, I know what you are looking for out there. You won’t find light in the Himalayas but you might find light within yourself while you are in the Himalayas.”
Steele Kelly: I get half way up and I start feeling a cold winter cough, and I’m like, “Well, okay this isn’t good.” This is the beginning stage of what’s called high altitude pulmonary edema, so your lungs fill with fluid. I’m like, “It’s not severe. There’s no bubbling,” just a little bit of fluid which is expected when you are going up 21,000 feet almost. So then it’s getting harder and harder to catch my breath.
It is taking me longer and longer pauses. Anyway, I make it to the summit, I am standing there, take the cool guy picture, and then I take a picture out of my wallet that I carried of Payton and I.
I buried that and a couple of other things on the summit, and then I stand back up. Mind you, I borrowed his ice axe to dig the hole to bury the post things. So I stand back up and all of a sudden I feel drunk. I’m like, “Oh this is bad.” This is the beginning stages of what’s called high altitude cerebral edema.
Essentially your brain is swelling from the altitude and it is confusing you and it is messing with your coordination, just like being drunk. So I look at him and we’ve only been up there like 10, 15 minutes and I was like, “Hey man we got to go down now,” and he’s like, “We just got here.”
“No I don’t think you understand.”
I have emergency medications in my bag. I am not at that point yet, but I don’t want to stick around and find out. He’s like, “Oh yeah no problem. I’ll get you back to base camp.” So he clips on the line and just rappels down all the way down. So I clip on, do the same thing.
Well after we get to these tie off points from the final ascend, he starts walking and I start walking but this time he doesn’t put his buddy line onto my harness.
He was just walking. I am trying to struggle to keep up and now there’s getting more fluid into my lungs. I’m just like, “Okay maintain coordination,” but I can’t even walk a straight line. My crampons are catching my pants, tearing them open and I’m like, “Focus, focus.” And trying to walk this line.
I have to cross all these crevices with essentially drunk coordination, so once again I’m like, “Man that is a long fall at the bottom. You are not going to feel any hit there, just make sure you cross it.”
Make it Home
Steele Kelly: I don’t know that is how my brain is working at the time, but I am being careful, So now it’s probably 6:45 at night. It is starting to get dark, and I am completely lost. Then all of a sudden I hear an auditory hallucination, and it is my buddy Casey and he says, “Hey man I’m having a kid.”
And we just talked about him having a kid before I went. He’s like, “So you got to make it home. You’ve got to be in this kid’s life, you can’t die in the Himalayas.”
And then I hear the sound of a cassette tape running out of tape and I hear one of my old AIT sergeants at my job training school, and I hear him say, “Gentleman if you are ever lost or separated from your unit, stop, dig in and get in a shelter before the due point hits or you will die of hypothermia.”
So I turned behind me, and all the trail marks I am following are gone and I’m like, “Oh no you have been visually hallucinating these trail markers.” and so now I pull out my map. The sun is already past the mountains and for the first time, I am really good with directions. The first time in my life, I don’t even know which way is north. I can’t see Everest anymore, and you always know that Everest is towards the north so I have no idea which way I came from.
“I have no idea which way is out.”
There is no cityscape so I can’t just see the village where you are standing. So immediately I am starting to, “Okay you can’t panic, you can’t panic, you got out here. You can get yourself off.”
And so then I looked down the valley, and you can see all the way down Khumbu Valley. I see clouds coming in and it’s like 18 degrees Fahrenheit outside. To see these clouds coming in, I am like, “All right you’ve got two hours or the storm is coming straight for you.”
So I get my head lamp out, all right I got my headlamp, I got my flashlight, we got to find shelter. Then I’m like, “Wait a minute, no just take out your down sleeping bag with your waterproof rain cover,” and it dawns on me. I cut weight, I took it out.
If you try to get into a down sleep system, you have snow and ice, you’re going to freeze to death because there is no insulation by you and the down is wet. So I’m like, “Okay not an option. We got to keep walking until we find some shelter”.
Here’s the other problem, the glacier moves three feet a day, so trying to find overhang there is a lot of risk. So I just start walking. I’m like, “Hey big J, you’ve got to hook me up man or I am dead.”
I was so exhausted. I was physically exhausted, I have all these fluids in my lungs, I am trying not to cough, and I have been awake for 36 hours.
I am just drained and so I am really at this point in the first time in my life I think I am getting to that point where I really can’t push much further.
I only had two bottles of water, and I was already half way down with one of them. I don’t know how long I was going to be out there. So I was really trying to find a way, how far I move, what do I do. So I walked for another half hour, maybe 45 minutes, and I see this little rock about the size of a Honda Civic, and it’s got an inch overhang on this other rock. It holds eighteen inches tall and 24 inches wide.
I’m like, “Perfect,” but then it dawns on me, “Oh yeah the glacier moves three feet a day. If you climb into it and it shifts while you are sleeping, you are going to die from crush syndrome because it is granite rocks,” or at least I thought it was granite rocks, but either way it is heavy rock.
Charlie Hoehn: You died.
Steele Kelly: Well yeah, when you are dying you release DMT. These hallucinations, I went through every traumatic experience from my childhood to present day, but I get to this resolution. I get to this last part, and it was really tough and it took me seven months to really process what happened. I talked to my doctor about it. I tried to get some scientific answer, I talked to the pastor about it who’s like, “I don’t have any sense of it.”
They all said, I don’t know. So what happened is I show up on Payton’s street and I am dropping her stuff off. So I go to walk back to my truck and she comes running after me and she’s like, “Steele.” And so I turned around, she jumps into my arms and I am holding her and hugging her and she’s like, “I love you. I just can’t be with you.”
I’m like, “I really don’t understand why not, I love you.” And she’s like, “Because you are not ready for me, and you haven’t been ready for me. You have to learn about yourself.”
At this point you know how you kind of dream your alarm clock is going off and starts piercing through? Well that’s what starts happening with the wind. The leaves starts rustling really hard and the street and leaves started zooming past us to black. I am still holding onto her and I was like, “I think I am dying,” and she’s like, “Maybe.” And she’s like, “I don’t think it’s your time, but if you die, stand with courage before God. Don’t be afraid. But you have to go back.”
“I don’t want to be alone. Please don’t leave me. Don’t go.”
And then she starts fading away like sand from the hour glass from her feet to her head, and then she’s gone and I am back awake on this glacier. Back to reality.
And it was weird because I just started crying. This entire time, I am thinking I am going to wake up in mom and dad’s couch like this is not happening but that I am like, “Oh you are losing touch with reality,” like you are definitely messed up right now.
And then I start hearing footsteps like crunch-crunch-crunch coming towards me and mind you the wind is howling, it is snowing and I am freezing my ass off. I am shaking because I am so cold and so then I am trying to yell out like, “Help me, help me.” Because I am thinking maybe there is a search party and so then I try to sit and I try to mouth help me but nothing comes out. My vocal chords are paralyzed because I am coughing so hard.
And so I just barely squeak it out and now I am thinking they are right outside and I can’t even get out of this rock and they are just going to walk past me.
So then it starts coming closer and I hear it stop—and the rocks get hot like I am burning up, like I feel hot. Then I knew I had learnt about it in the military that oh no, this is stage four hypothermia. You are not really hot. You just think you are, and so then the last bit of energy I used. I pulled the drawstring on the hood shut, crawl inside, and then I passed out.
And then after that I woke up the next day. I have frost bite on my arm and on my face and the pills that I took worked so I could think clearly enough to pull the map out and get off and this is where the whole story gets really confusing. I know I was pretty much still in shock over the next few days. I don’t remember most of the walk but I walked almost to Everest base camp from there.
After I went back to the village, the next morning I woke up went towards Lobuche and I was within five miles of base camp.
Charlie Hoehn: You walked? Who was the crunching? You have no idea?
Steele Kelly: It was hallucination. So the thing behind that was I was laughing so hard that night because I was seeing a Joe Rogan and Big Foot. They call him big foot, the abominable snow man. They said that one of the Sherpas that I ran into because they were all looking for me. I ran with my guide again, I went back to Jacun. I saw him.
It was weird like normal Steele would want to kill the guy. He left me for dead but I gave him a hug, I was like, “Thank you,” and he was looking at me like, “What in the world is wrong with you?”
Well no, it wasn’t even that. This is exactly why you were supposed to come out here. It was to deal with all of these things head on and so I was thanking him. I felt like he gave me a gift as weird as that is to say and it was really difficult to explain. I told my friends and family and they’re like, “You’ve got to be kidding”.
“I felt like it happened for a reason, and I was thankful he left me after that.”
So we got back to Jacun and all these guys start talking, “Oh that’s the guy,” and I must have looked terrible because they just started bringing me food and water and they cannot believe I survived out there and so all the villagers come out and they were like, “Did you see him? Did you see him?” I’m like, “See who?” and then this other Sherpa his like the salty dude in the bunch.
He says to somebody in their language and they go away and he’s like, “We talk later, go rest up,” and so I come back a little while later and he’s like, “Do you know who he is?” and now my wheels are turning because I know they are not an Abrahamic religion. They don’t believe in God or a prophet and so I’m like, “Okay that rules that out. I don’t know what that is.” He’s like, “The abominable snowman,” I’m like, “Abominable snowman?” he’s like, “You know the yeti? Big Foot?”
I’m like, “No, but I am intrigued. I’m from the Northwest, I know all about Big Foot,” and so he starts talking about how his grandpa was a guide on Everest and how his grandpa had something similar happen. He heard footsteps outside and he just knew he wasn’t alone. His grandpa was saying that it was the Yeti or Big Foot, and I was like, “I saw Big Foot, man.” I mean I don’t know, I was out of my mind.
Charlie Hoehn: That is the ultimate twist to your story. I never thought we would end up with that.
Steele Kelly: No. I think I saw big foot in my mind.
Mind you, I was still in shock. I don’t know that I have now a septic double lung infection, so I am still out of my mind. And it’s funny, the weirdest part about this whole thing was that every couple of days I’d get on WiFi. I’d buy a little prepaid card and text my parents like, “I am alive don’t worry.” So before the climb I was like, “Hey mom I’ve got a window if you don’t hear from me in four days now you can start worrying. Call the embassy or whatever, but I will let you know. Don’t panic for four days. I might be out there before the climb.”
Charlie Hoehn: What’s bivouced?
Steele Kelly: It took me a long time to tell my story because I just can’t barely get a word out, and they’re like, “Dude you’ve bivouced” and I’m like, “I guess,” and he’s like, “Do you realize that kills most season climbers?” And he’s like, “You’ve bivouced on your first climb”.
It’s when you have to set a shelter, and you’re just stuck out there and you’ve got to find a place to burrow in. I am like, “Yeah that happened,” and the one guy goes, “You know you are not okay, right?” I’m like, “No I’m good.” He’s like, “No, no, no. I have seen this before. You know those drugs mask your symptoms. It’s a steroid,” he goes, “It stops your immune system remember? So right now how many days of dexamethasone do you have?”
He’s like, “You need to leave like right now. You need to start going down to lower elevation,” and I’m like, “Well why?” I mean I am taking a steroid, and he goes, “No, no you have to go down. Once you have already hit those symptoms if you don’t, you run on dexamethasone, you are going to die.”
I’m like, “What are my odds?” I’d beaten the odds so far. He’s like, “10%. No, no of living,” and he’s like, “I have seen several climbers die from this. I am not messing around man, you need to get your stuff and head back now.”
Charlie Hoehn: Two miles high.
Steele Kelly: Yeah, pretty high and so I am like, “Okay I am feeling pretty good, I still got gurgling in my lungs, I am getting better, I am now 8,000 feet lower, so I am good.”
And so then I meet a couple of guys, and one of the guys is like, “You are now a little away from the hospital up there. Dude you are still bad.” He’s like, “You need to leave at 4:00 tomorrow morning.” He’s like, “Yeah you’re bad”.
So I am like, “Yeah I think I am going to try to push it tomorrow it’s just that it is worrying me that it still hasn’t cleared up.” And he is like, “This is not something you mess around with,” once again, I don’t know why I didn’t get a donkey to take the rest of the way.
So the next morning I wake up, I eat breakfast and I message my mom before I take off. I am like, “Hey I am on the last stretch. I am headed to the hospital. I will let you know when I get there. It should only take me six hours.”
So I take my last pill of dexamethasone. I set off walking. So the walk should take roughly six and a half hours if you are keeping a steady pace because immediately when you come out you will drop down about 10,000 feet, and then it is a really gradual thousand from there.
“I could feel my throat starting to close.”
I was like, “You got to get to town. You should stop and rest, you are dehydrated.” And so I get into this tea house and drop my bags and I’m like, “Okay we’re good.” So I run into two other people I had run into along this whole trail, and it’s this lady and her boyfriend. They’re the same age as my parents, and it was nice to have a familiar face like that.
She goes, “Honey are you all right?”
I’m like, “I think so,” and she goes, “No, no you’re not.” And she goes, “You need to go to the hospital.”
Her boyfriend had actually gotten similar symptoms, so she was heading back up to the room. So I walk out, and it must have been just enough time for that steroid to wear off, so I could feel my throat closing off. I am starting to get spots in my vision.
I am like, “Oh man I am a big American, and if I fall down I am just going to die in the middle of the street.”
At this point I know this isn’t just a mind over matter. I am going into some serious issues with my throat closing off.
What You’re Looking For
Steele Kelly: So I see these four kids in a window, and I just pick up rocks, I don’t care if I break this window or not, and just started throwing them at the window. I get their attention and I am like, “Help,” which mind you still like an inside voice because I still can’t really talk. So they come running out, and two kids take off running away from me.
These are like eight year old kids, and I’m like, “You guys just left me for dead. I am going die. I guess I am going to die.” And these other kids got to each arm and were like, “Mister, mister follow me.”
And so they start dragging me down this trail, and I don’t know where they are taking me. In my mind, they are going to take me and slaughter me in the back. I don’t know, it’s jumping in to the worst, like I can’t fight back right now. So we started walking.
It was just a little bit further and a little bit further and it is all uphill and it seems like we have gone a mile. I mean I don’t really know how far in hindsight but it was a long way like that and as we get up, I see the hospital gates and it’s closed. So they are closed for the night and I am like, “I just came all this way to die in the front steps of this hospital.” That is it. There is nothing else I can do.
And then I blacked out.
So it turns out the two eight year old kids who took off running went to the doctor’s house to wake him out of bed. They’re like, “Hey this American is dying in the street. You need to come help.”
And he goes, “Are you an American doctor?” And in my head I am like, “Yeah,” in case I get better treatment just in case, but I say, “No I am just a vet from American Military” I felt like that was safe for me. I am pre-med, I’m close, so he believed it and he’s like, “Okay there are some kids outside waiting for you.” And I was like, “Send them in.” I only had 20 dollars left of the American money on me, so I gave them $5 each.
“If it weren’t for you guys, I would have definitely died.”
Then after they left, I just went unconscious. Then I came back to and he’s like, “We did an X-ray of your lungs. Your lungs are 70% full of fluid,” he goes, “You have severe high altitude pulmonary edema,” and he’s like, “I am surprised you made it this far,” he goes, “You have a fever of almost 105 degrees when you got here and your blood oxygen percent is 37%,” so I was on oxygen.
And they are just dumping bags of IV antibiotics. It turns out the lung infection, I had double lung infection that went septic so it spread to the whole body, and he’s like, “You need to go back to America,” and I am like, “Yeah. Yeah I do.” And so he’s like, “All right you are stable for the night it’s 3:00 I will be back here at six.”
And they left and I am just alone in this hospital. There are no nurses, there is no night clerk, just me alone. So right before he leaves and I was like, “Can you sign me on the WiFi?”
It is like the most American thing I can say. I wanted to get a hold of my mom because I am sure now she is thinking I am dead somewhere. So I texted them, and it’s funny because my mom is like, “Are you okay?” “I am fine, I am good now. I am in the hospital, it was a close call,” and she was like, it floored the messages.
My dad he doesn’t ask how I’m doing, he just says, “Did you find what you are looking for?”
And I started thinking. I was like, “Yeah. Yeah I did.”
The Silent Warrior
Steele Kelly: I realized what I was looking for was never lost at all. My focus has just been too narrow. It has been sitting here in front of me this whole time. It has never been lost.
And then I put my phone down. I said I will talk to you guys later, and I just sat there and I cried but it wasn’t a cry like a oh poor me. It was everything I had dealt with—like from everything from when I was a kid to then just being done. Just going away, and holy crap, it has been a wild ride. I don’t know what to say, but I am so thankful I made it.
So then the next day, I flew back to the capital, and then a week later, I landed back in Portland.
After that, I had some realizations, and that led me to write a book. Because I realized, some of the things I realized were things vets and their families and their wives and their husbands, they struggle with. I realized that someone needs to come out and just start opening this conversation. It is okay to talk about these things.
The weird part is that we have in this brotherhood, we have this unspoken rules and stuff and one of these things like this code or this ethos about being silent. There is a theory behind it. Everybody has a different take on it, but when you look at these World War 2 veterans, most of them left, they came back, and they went back to the farms and they just lived their life and they never talked about it again, and in our eyes they were fine.
We know now after doing the research they were not fine, but that was the ideal. That’s the warrior, the silent warrior.
We have this idea that if you are going up there boasting and talking about it, you are devaluing your service in a way, because either you are lying about it and that’s where you feel you need to brag and talk about all the time and tell everybody these stories, or you didn’t do anything.
So when I started writing the book, that really struggled because I was like, “I am betraying this code that I believe so much in.” And then it dawned on me: if this silence was working we wouldn’t have 22 veterans per day that commit suicide.
“If it was so effective, why do we have that problem?”
I still think there’s definitely a lot of elements to this code of silence. I don’t think it applies to getting help and talking to a counselor and talking to your spouse and talking to your family.
Those rules it is not silence towards them, and I think it is important for us to start having these conversations and break that stigma.