After '08 bombing in Iraq, Steve Baskis wouldn't let injury or blindness keep him from his goals
CHAMPAIGN — Steve Baskis grew up in a family that was never rooted in one place. They relocated often because of his father's job; before going to high school, Steve lived in four different states.
Rather than missing old friends, he made new ones. And he enjoyed exploring new neighborhoods, among them a deep forest behind his family's home in Carbondale and the urban jungle of Manhattan.
"My two younger brothers would probably agree with me when I say that we were not indulged with a lot of toys and possessions and did not grow up with fancy things, but we were happy," he wrote. "We were content with our two arms and legs, our imaginations and our sense of exploration."
Those qualities, as well as Army basic training, would later serve Baskis well, particularly after he was permanently blinded by a roadside bomb in May 2008 while serving as an infantryman in Iraq.
Though completely blind — he can't even perceive light — Baskis has continued to explore — much more than most sighted persons do.
He traveled to eight countries just last year and recently returned from a trip to Mexico with a Marine buddy.
He won a bronze medal in tandem cycling in the U.S. Paralympics national competition.
And even more surprisingly, he's climbed mountains, among them the 20,000-foot Mount Lobuche in the Himalayas.
"Climbing is very interesting to do if you're blind," Baskis said during an interview in his eighth-floor apartment at M2 on Neil in downtown Champaign. "People, I guess, find it fascinating."
Baskis, 27, began scaling heights as a result of meeting the blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, a civilian who has summitted Everest and other mountains.
With Weihenmayer and sighted guides, Baskis and 10 other disabled veterans, plus a grieving Gold Star mother, ascended Mount Lobuche in October 2010 as part of the Soldiers to Summits program.
Three-time Emmy Award-winning director Michael Brown went along, documenting the life-changing journey for his documentary, "High Ground." M2 on Neil will sponsor a free screening of it Tuesday evening at the Art Theater; a meet-and-greet with Baskis will take place afterward.
Cynthia Faullin, vice president of development for One Main Development, which owns M2 on Neil, said the business is sponsoring the screening to bring attention to Baskis, who has relatives in Rantoul, and the fact that he lives here now.
"It was a very admirable effort on his part — first of all to serve his country and then to take part in this sort of journey with other wounded veterans as well," she said.
She also likes Baskis, as do most people who meet him.
"Steve's awesome, just a great guy," she said. "He's much older than his years because of all the experiences he's had, He's driven, focused, interesting, charismatic, magnetic and very human as well."
The soft-spoken and polite Baskis has attended several screenings of "High Ground" already, one before 600 people in Boulder, Colo.
"Everybody was laughing, crying, clapping, cheering," he said. "It was pretty interesting to hear."
Released last year, "High Ground" also has received film festival awards and good reviews.
"The scenery is breathtaking and the tone resolutely jaunty, but 'High Ground' ... leaves an inescapably poignant trace," New York Times critic Jeannette Catsoulis wrote. "This has less to do with the wounds themselves — both visible and veiled — than with the astonishingly candid confessions of their bearers, hammered home all too often by careening combat footage."
Baskis himself is candid, having been profiled and written about several times. He belongs to a speakers' bureau; before moving to Champaign in September, he gave motivational talks at schools in the Chicago area.
He maintains a blog and wrote a moving autobiographical essay for Michael Kerrigan's The Character Building Project.
"Some guys don't want to talk about things; they bottle up," he said. "Psychiatrists say if you talk, it makes things better. It helps you through it. You can't erase your memory. It hasn't affected me to the point I can't do things."
Right now, Baskis has put his blog and mountaineering on hold as he takes care of personal issues and tries to enjoy life — he plays his Roland elecronic drum set in the corner of his living room, eats often at downtown restaurants and does his daily exercise routine to stay fit. Not to mention all the travel and sporting events, among them snowboarding and kayaking.
He's also applied to Parkland College and wants eventually to study at the University of Illinois.
He does not regret having joined the Army, saying he wanted to learn firsthand about his country, his government and what was going on in Iraq. He had always wanted to join the military; at least four of his relatives including his father, Paul, had served.
Sealing his decision were the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when Baskis was 16 and living on Long Island with his family.
"For me, the images of aircrafts slamming into the twin towers, people leaping to their death and the buildings crashing to the city streets below will forever be seared into my psyche," he wrote.
"I did not live very far from the city, and throughout that day, I could hear ambulances, fire engines and emergency vehicles racing with sirens blaring toward the smoldering destruction that lay on Manhattan Island."
Two years after gaining his GED, Baskis enlisted in the Army, hoping to serve in special forces. He also looked at the Army as a stepping stone toward college and a career.
He excelled at basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., receiving upon graduation a meritorious promotion to the next rank.
After he was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division 4th Brigade at Fort Hood, Texas, he volunteered for the Personal Security Detachment, which protects generals and other high-ranking officers.
He was attached to Delta Company, 1st Platoon; it arrived in Baghdad in late 2007. The fateful day for him came roughly six months later: May 13, 2008, when his squad escorted a brigadier general to a location north of Baghdad.
The first half of the mission went well.
The return trip did not.
"Almost halfway back to our home base, our convoy approached a traffic circle on the northern edge of Baghdad," Baskis wrote. "I pushed the armored vehicle through the intersection and out the other side, and that was when the explosion happened. It came so hard and fast that I don't even remember it.
"The team and vehicle behind ours later explained that an explosive device detonated off to our right side and that the explosion propelled a piece of metal at the right passenger door. Victor, my team leader, was sitting on the side where the blast hit our armored vehicle. Victor (Cota), I believe, absorbed most of the blast ... protecting me from deadly flames and flying debris. Small pieces of shrapnel hit me in my head, neck, arms and legs. I was knocked unconscious and started to bleed all over."
Cota died on the scene. A helicopter took Baskis to a field hospital, where a surgeon stopped the arterial bleeding and worked on his other injuries.
A few days later he woke "groggy and disoriented" in a military hospital in Washington, D.C. He had hoped surgery would at least restore some light perception. It did not, and Baskis had to come to the painful realization that he would never see again.
He also lost most of the use of his left arm due to vascular and nerve damage. Yet every night in the hospital he thought of the promise he had made to himself and his family to never give up and always do his best.
He was glad when he was told he would be transferred to Hines Veterans Administration Hospital near Chicago for rehabilitation — he finally had some goals. There he learned how to live as a blind civilian, using a white cane to navigate the "black labyrinth" of the hospital, and then the streets outside.
He became frustrated at times but eventually realized he would have to be patient.
"If I could not master these skills and techniques, mine would be a long life of just sitting home on a couch doing absolutely nothing and being afraid of the world," he wrote.
He admits he wanted to give up at times. Then he would think about Cota and other veterans who had it worse. He stopped feeling sorry for himself. And he came to realize he had been trained to be resilient.
It was while he was at Hines that Baskis heard about the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes and the U.S. Paralympics cycling camp. He decided to give tandem bicycling a try.
"I entered a road race and time trial, and my partner and I pushed our tandem cycle to over 40 mph," he wrote of his first tandem-cycling event, in 2009. "It was truly a great time. I fell in love with tandem cycling, and I continue to ride, train and compete in this sport throughout the year."
Then Baskis was invited to climb Mount Lobuche as part of Soldiers to Summits, now a program for injured and noninjured veterans. As a blind person, he had already climbed other mountains, among them a volcano in New Mexico and 14,000-footers in the Rockies, for practice.
After summitting Lobuche, he tackled Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Russia and the tallest in the Caucasus Range in southern Russia.
While mountaineering, Baskis relies on his senses of touch and hearing, tuning into a bear bell that someone ahead of him carries, and to guides tapping rocks and other surfaces.
"I'm following the sounds," he said. "Same thing with snow and ice. I can hear the crunch. I just follow right behind a person, and somebody else walks behind me. I don't go too far left or right."
Depending on how he feels and the difficulty of the climb, Baskis sometimes is on his own, using his trekking poles or holding onto a pole carried by someone else. Or he's attached by a rope to other climbers.
He admits the sport can be nerve-wracking. The most dangerous climb for him was of Mount Elbrus. He and his team encountered a whiteout and decided to turn back and were lost for 15 hours.
"We had wandered into a crevasse field," he said. "I'm focusing on following the individual and staying right behind him and listening to the wind."
Once at the summit of a mountain, Baskis feels everything open up.
"You can hear the sound bounce off the rocks," he said. "You can tell it's vast and open. It is interesting when you get to the very top of the mountain — the sound goes infinitely in every direction."
He also finds it's interesting to walk through clouds, feeling the moisture on his face.
For him, the climbs have been healing and have instilled more confidence in him. In his Character Building Project essay, Baskis wrote that the past four years, with all of his travels, mountaineering and other adventures, have made for a wild and crazy ride.
"I've done my best to hold onto my values and beliefs, and I believe they have protected me from drifting even further into darkness and depression," he wrote. "The experiences of my childhood and life in the military have given me the ability to think through my problems, frustrations and weaknesses.
"The people in my life — my caring family, great friends and organizations and the country in general — have always been at my side, mentoring and guiding me during hard times. I continue to look ahead to greater and even better things, understanding that bad things do happen to all of us."
If you go
What: Screening sponsored by M2 on Neil of "High Ground," a documentary about 11 disabled military veterans — including Steve Baskis of Champaign — who climb a Himalayan mountain as part of rehabilitation from their injuries
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The Art Theater, 126 W. Church St.
Admission: Free, with donations accepted for local veterans groups
Also: After the 90-minute film, M2 on Neil will host a reception for filmgoers in Unit 908 in M2, 301 N. Neil St., C, with wine and cheese served until 9:30 p.m. Baskis, a resident of M2, will be there for questions and conversation.