Maj. Phil Packer of the Royal Military Police participated in the London Marathon this spring. He finished last — almost two weeks later — but earned a world of admiration.
Packer is paraplegic. He lost the use of both legs when he was dragged under a vehicle after a rocket attack in Basra, Iraq. Doctors told him he would probably never walk again. Since then, he has rowed the English Channel and completed the marathon, and now he's ready to climb a mountain — which, in a way, he's already done.
Packer had been deployed in Basra for 16 months when he was struck head-on by a vehicle after a rocket attack in February 2008. The impact caused severe internal injuries and left him paralyzed at the waist. Last March, after a year of recovery, he took his first steps. In April, he was running a marathon.
The two-week journey took its toll on his body, Packer says, but the outpouring of support from the British public was an unexpected boost. Realizing how much they cared about their armed forces, he says, was "a very humbling experience."
Packer has served in the military for 16 years. Like many soldiers, he says, the world of the disabled was foreign soil.
"You don't really see much of disability because you're an organization that's fit and able-bodied," he says. The past year has opened his eyes to people with disabilities, he says, but even so, "sometimes I forget that I am one of them."
"Compared to so many people that I've met, who've had far worse injuries," he says, "I'm very lucky to be in the situation I'm in. So it's not that bad, really."
Apparently not bad enough to keep him from his next challenge. Packer and a team from Britain are in the U.S. to climb California's El Capitan Mountain. His teammates will hook lines along the sheer vertical rock face, then Packer will pull himself to the summit. "I think it's about 4,000 pull-ups over the three-day period," he estimates.
In the short-term, Packer is clearly aiming high. But he knows hard choices are still ahead. Still on active duty, he has an option to stay in the military for another 20 years. "Can I carry out the same role and responsibility as I did before — with a disability?" he wonders, knowing that there are simply some things he can no longer do.
"There's that balance between what's selfless and what's selfish," he muses. "And in some ways what I'm doing perhaps is selfish, because it's pushing me through the difficult times and making me realize how lucky I am. And what I want to do is to enrich the lives of other people, and I guess that's the most important thing, really."
"I've really got to think hard about what I want to do in the next 20 years — and probably El Capitan is the best time to do that."