Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Benjamin Breckheimer strives to be first Purple Heart recipient to climb Seven Summits
MENOMONEE FALLS, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Benjamin Breckheimer is an Army veteran who grew up in Menomonee Falls, and right now, he is poised to do something no Purple Heart recipient has ever done. He set a goal to climb the highest mountains on all seven continents -- a feat called the Seven Summits. It's a goal he set out to achieve after being injured in Afghanistan.
When you talk to Breckheimer, there's one thing that becomes obvious right away. He always has a big smile on his face, even when he didn't have a lot to smile about.
"There were definitely some dark days. A lot of dark days," Breckheimer said when he was interviewed over Zoom from his current home in South Carolina.
Breckheimer enlisted in the Army in 2002 and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.
"Unfortunately, three months into my tour, the very first improvised explosive device I hit ended up taking me out of fight and ending my military career," he said.
He was airlifted out with a concussion, perforated eardrum, fractured vertebrae and severe leg injuries.
"My lower right leg was actually hanging by not even an inch-thick strip of skin," he explained.
But photos from that time show him in his hospital bed with a smile and a thumbs up. Stepfather Tim Lyons remembers talking to the doctors about the severity of Breckheimer's injuries.
"He looks me in the eye, and he goes, I can always take the leg off, I can never put it back on," Lyons said. "And it was like so poignant to me, because it was like I'm in your corner, let's just go with it."
Breckheimer said he was surprised when he regained consciousness.
"Honestly, waking up from the initial emergency surgeries and seeing that I still had my leg attached was pretty surprising," he said.
His recovery took four years, and during that time, he also went through a divorce. It's a chain of events that left him wondering what to do next.
"I didn't really have a direction in my life," he said of that time period.
But his struggles eventually took him to new heights, quite literally.
"I honestly felt like I bit off more than I could chew in the beginning," he said with a laugh.
Breckheimer started climbing the world's tallest mountains. He's summitted six of the notorious Seven Summits -- the tallest peaks on every continent. Photos show him on Mt. Elbrus in Russia, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Aconcagua in Argentina. Another photo shows him with his Menomonee Falls High School flag in Antarctica.
Breckheimer said climbing changed his life.
"It has 100% helped with the mental and emotional recovery. Absolutely," he said. "All in all, it's really helped my recovery process because it was giving me a goal."
He's crossed ladders over deep crevasses in the ice. He also survived an earthquake and avalanche on Mt. Everest in 2015. He reached Everest's summit two years later in 2017.
Lyons can't hide how proud he is.
"Ben knows, I get a little emotional about this because it's so -- to have raised a kid to reach these heights, it's amazing," Lyons said. "It's a cool story, I know it's our story. I appreciate that the community and the world likes to hear it."
Breckheimer is also inspiring a new generation by telling his story to kids all over.
"Just to hear how excited they get, really drives me even further," he said.
It's also driven him to return to Mt. Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in North America. He first tried to summit Denali in 2019, but weather made it impossible. Lyons jokingly said Breckheimer has nine lives.
"Ben is kind of like a cat in a way. So, while he may have burned up a couple, he's got a bunch left. We're going to ride that train for a while," Lyons said.
Breckheimer left for Alaska on May 29, and plans to get to the top of the mountain by June 21. If he does, he will be the first Purple Heart recipient to climb the Seven Summits.
"That was a really big part of this journey, was that I wanted to be the first at something," he said.
Lyons said the whole family will be keeping tabs on his progress from Menomonee Falls.
"From that very moment to where we stand today, it's just been an incredible journey of power, strength, all by Ben and the people who support him," Lyons said.
Breckheimer is a mentor with the organization Purple Heart Summits. For more information, visit https://www.american300.org/.
If you'd like to nominate an Everyday Hero, send Natalie at message at firstname.lastname@example.org.