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Ready for New Challenges

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This is a story of three challenges.

The first, Danny Swank faced while serving in Afghanistan with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. As part of his work on an intelligence team, Danny often went into towns to meet local leaders and business owners.

In a matter-of-fact manner, he recalls an attack that almost killed him. A member of his team was at the wheel as they drove through a public square in Kandahar.

“A man walked through the crowd—right up to our truck—and threw a grenade into the cab.”

It slid between them and under the seat as the driver scrambled frantically, trying to tuck the grenade into a special pocket made to contain the blast. Danny was trying to help, even while on the radio to another vehicle in their convoy, yelling, “Grenade! Grenade!”

The detonation tore through Danny’s legs. It blew off part of the driver’s left hand. Smoke filled the cab of the truck as it stalled in the middle of the crowd.

Danny didn’t lose consciousness. He remembers it all: the driver restarting the truck and somehow reaching the local police station. Getting carried to the back of an SUV. A medic covering his legs with a new powder that prevents a fatal loss of blood from catastrophic wounds. The brutal drive back to his firebase. The tailgate of the SUV bouncing against his legs. The pain that wouldn't let him pass out. The MedEvac helicopter coming in for a landing.

Just after lifting off with Danny on board, the doctors got an IV into his neck and knocked him out. He was in a coma for nine days.

When he woke up, he was in Walter Reed. Within four months at the medical hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, he went through surgery 52 times. The 53rd operation came nearly a year after the attack in Kandahar. That’s when Danny’s doctors amputated his leg below the knee.

“My physical recovery went fairly well. It was pretty smooth,” he says. He was fitted with a prosthetic that uses a shock piston and carbon-fiber spring. Seeing him walk around campus and working in the lab, you’d never know.

Still, he wrestled with who he was and wondered what he’d do. The Veterans Administration helped him identify his skills and passions.

“Their top-15 recommendations were all some kind of engineer,” he says. After taking some courses at a nearby community college, he heard about Clarkson. After a visit to the campus, he applied.

“I didn’t want to go to school anywhere else,” he says.

And it was at Clarkson that Danny heard about the Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge. Joining the group brought him to Alaska for mountain climbing and rafting -- and to Tanzania to climb Mt Kilimanjaro (see sidebar).

The third challenge came from the Clarkson Formula SAE SPEED Team. Each academic year, the team designs, builds and races a scaled-down version of a Formula 1 racecar. And they have a motto: “Everybody on the team drives the car.”

But the car has a clutch.

“I can work two pedals,” Danny says, “but not three.”

This team of engineers likes a challenge—almost as much as they like cars. The solution? Install two clutches: one is a pedal on the floor, the other is a hand clutch (similar to those on motorcycles).

“It’ll take some getting used to,” Danny says, “but, y’know, I’ve done tougher stuff.”

He graduates from Clarkson in May as a civil engineer, ready for new challenges.
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Danny Swank '13 Civil Engineering (Danny, in the driver's seat, and a few members of the SAE SPEED Team)

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In January, after flying to Tanzania, Danny Swank and four other wounded veterans made their way to the base of Mt Kilimanjaro.

“It was hot and humid. We weren’t far from the Indian Ocean. That first day was the toughest.”

Each of the first four days, they hiked about six miles and climbed a couple thousand feet in elevation.

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(photo: Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge)

“Each night, I was exhausted and thought I wouldn’t be able to go on the next day. But I woke up each morning, ready to go.”

But after the group reached high camp, just under 16,000 feet, the thin air prevented him from reaching the summit the next day. And problems with his prosthetic made for a difficult hike down. Still he says, it was a great experience.

“Everybody in the group pushed themselves—and we pushed each other—to do something we never thought we’d be able to do. It was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done.”