Kevin Till remembers the explosions as he drove down the street near Camp Rustamiyah in Iraq.
"I felt like I was in an old World War II movie," he says, "with bombs blowing up on both sides of us."
The 49-year-old Colorado Springs resident served in the Army for 28 years. He experienced 100 combat missions. Toward the end of his tenure, he served in the 759th Military Police Battalion out of Fort Carson. At Camp Rustamiyah, near Baghdad, the fighting was often heated.
"That's one of the things about MPs, we're service support," Till says. "But the MPs have seen a lot of combat. I dodged a lot of rockets and mortars."
He estimates that six or seven explosions occurred within 50 feet of his location. His first reaction, once he could think straight, was to check to see if his eyes and limbs were intact, then see to the safety of others. He never received medical attention while there.
Till said he noticed some health problems — including something not right with his speech — while in Iraq, but ignored them.
"I was at camp, giving a brief, and I was trying to say, 'Don't put rounds in your weapons until you get to the towers.' But I couldn't remember the word 'round,'" he says. "I could describe them: two inches long, brass casing, with a copper end that goes in the enemy."
Till's brain injury wasn't discovered until he returned home, where his wife, Petra, noticed the memory loss immediately. "I was stammering and stuttering," he says. A CT scan revealed the degradation. Doctors told him he had suffered at least one traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
Though his condition makes life more complicated, Till is grateful. He has a job and a family. On Saturday, he'll climb Pikes Peak with about 420 others in the 30th Pikes Peak Challenge. The event, hosted by the nonprofit Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado, raises funds to help those with brain injuries live active and healthful lives.
The climb to the peak's 14,115-foot summit begins at 5 a.m. Registration is $50, and the organization asks that hikers raise another $150 in pledges. (For more information, check out pikespeakchallenge.com.)
The Pikes Peak Challenge also includes a hike to Barr Camp, or a walk around Manitou for those who don't feel prepared for the 12-mile journey and thin air above treeline.
Event director Tina Ziwak says the event is full of emotion and stories of perseverance. She'll never forget a brain-injured hiker who in 2014 hiked to the summit on crutches.
"A friend walked with him the entire distance, carried his pack and helped him over various obstacles," she says. "That was heartwarming, because brain injuries often take that kind of support."
The Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado website reports that about 5,000 individuals are hospitalized for, and 1,000 die from, traumatic brain injury in Colorado each year. About 2,200 of those injured will experience disability a year after hospitalization. TBI kills 53,000 U.S. citizens annually.
Ziwak's son Jackson suffered a debilitating brain injury as a toddler. Now 10, he walks with assistance and has developed communication skills that allow him to ask for things he needs. She says that's her inspiration for being involved, which includes being at the summit on the day of the climb, cheering on the Challenge finishers and providing snacks and hot soup.
Till has climbed Pikes Peak five times, once during a previous Pikes Peak Challenge. He has trained on the Incline and crushed some hard workouts on an elliptical machine that red-lined his heart rate. The activity takes his mind off the difficulty that he sometimes faces. He becomes nauseated while standing on any unstable surface, like the dance floor at a downtown bar.
"I can feel the floor going up and down and I get sick to my stomach," he says.
A ride at the Colorado State Fair left him feeling disoriented for 24 hours. But he functions well with his feet on solid ground. And he'll happily climb Pikes Peak to help those less fortunate.
"I'm worse than some and better than most," Till says. "I have several friends who have brain injuries worse than mine. They need things like service dogs to help them. I want to give back."