Once brothers in arms, four Turkish Gazi (combat veterans), all of whom have endured life-changing injuries, are preparing for an encounter that will once again test their spirit, physical resilience and levels of endurance to the limits. To balance these difficulties, they have one very important attitude of mind – hope.
Last week, Fethiye Times were privileged to meet the Turkish Gazi, the rest of team and the organisers, while they were staying at Fethiye’s Club Letoonia. They were there to take part in a four-day training camp.
Over a relaxed brunch in the early spring sunshine, they told us that in April, following more high altitude treks and rigorous training in Turkey, they will be travel to Nepal to embark on one of the world’s toughest and most demanding treks.
Their destination is Everest Base Camp.
How the Shoulder to Shoulder Project started
This is the first project for 37th Degrees, a civil initiative formed by Velit Gazel, Director of Gazel Tourism and owner of Club Letoonia, The aim is to carry out projects that raise awareness regarding social issues, for no political or commercial gain.
It was Gazel who initially came up with the idea for the trek. Then ATAK Academy became involved with two of the founders – Ali Türkşen and Kemalettin Yakar – adding their considerable knowledge, skills and experience to the project.
Omuz Omuza Projesi, Shoulder to Shoulder in English, is now being organised by Ali Türkşen and Kemalettin Yakar; two retired Naval Officers, who not so long ago faced their own grim struggle against adversity.
The two men were caught up with hundreds of other military personnel in the 2003 Balyoz, or “Sledgehammer” case. Türkşen and Yakar were imprisoned but acquitted in 2015. While in prison, Türkşen said: “The idea of establishing an organisation like we have now was one of the dreams that kept us going. The philosophy of ATAK Akademisi, which we established in 2016, is ‘Asla, asla asla vazgeçme’ [Never, never, never give up]. This is about determination, hope, and sharing that hope, not only with the people we work with, but the whole of Turkey too.”
The project was finally given the go-ahead by Gazi Koray Gürbüz and the other combat veterans. A team of 15 men will be making the trek. He told us that the unifying characteristic of all the people taking part is their hope, spirit and love for their country, Turkey, and its people.
The project organisers
Born in 1971, Gazel is the Chair of Gazelle Turizm and the sponsor for the four Gazi taking part.
Born in 1965, Türkşen graduated from the Turkish Naval Academy with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He served for much of his career as an SAT Commando in the Turkish Armed Forces. In 2015, he retired from the Turkish Armed Forces at the rank of Navy Staff Captain, and founded ATAK Academy together with retired Navy Lieutenant Commander Levent Bektaş.
Born in 1972, Yakar is a graduate of the Naval Naval Academy and an industrial engineer. He served in various naval vessels under the Naval Forces Command, and subsequently in the Naval Forces’ intelligence division. His navigation experience in different Naval Forces units and the certificates he received, means that he can be captain on ocean going ships. In 2016, he retired at the rank of Navy Commander from the Turkish Armed Forces, and took his place as one of the founders of the ATAK Academy.
The Turkish Gazi
The combat veterans taking part in this epic adventure are:
Born in 1973, Koray Gürbüz became a combat veteran in 1998 during the clashes against separatists that took place in the rural areas of Gabar Mountain, Şırnak. Injuries: Shortened left foot, lost left elbow, segmental hip fracture, one kidney lost, spleen lost, no gall bladder, and part of his intestines removed. He is currently working as a research assistant at a private university.
Born in 1975, Koray Gürbüz became a combat veteran in 2005, during a military operation against separatists in Çukurca, in the Uzundere region of Hakkari. Injuries: Limited left knee movement, left leg 5 cm shorter.
Born in 1974, Ömer Duran was shot in 1995 during a military operation against separatists in the Altin Tepe region of Northern Iraq. Injuries: Left Femur with segmental fractures, restricted movement in the left knee, left leg 5-6 cm shorter. He is currently a retired combat veteran.
Born in 1976, Önder Gültekin became a veteran in 1996 following the detonation of an improvised explosive device ambush during clashes in the Hakurk region of Northern Iraq. His right leg has been amputated below the knee and he now uses a knee prosthesis.
The rest of the 15-strong team are professionals from various walks of life.
While in Fethiye the men spent the daytimes walking between six and nine kilometres on some of the challenging tracks that form spurs off the Lycian Way. With local guide, Ali İhsan Emre, leading them, the men completed three hikes in three days.
In March, Shoulder to Shoulder, of course, the men will take their training to a new level when they travel to Mount Erciyes in Kayseri Province. At 3,864 metres (12,677 feet) it is the highest mountain in Central Anatolia. In March there will still be plenty of snow, making the tough hikes on the rugged slopes extra hard on the men.
In April they will set off for Nepal. Once there, they will spend a few days at 3,200 metres acclimatising to the altitude. Then, with Everest towering above them, the reason for all their hard work will begin. Meanwhile, they still occasionally have time to relax!
The team say they are getting positive comments and support from everyone they meet. This is something that helps enormously with motivation.
Everest Base Camp is at an altitude of 5,545 metres so the team will find the 12-day trek is no stroll in the park; even for those with no combat injury and disability. According to the Lonely Planet Guide, “Nothing can really prepare you for the trek’s extreme hills and altitude of up to 5,545 metres.”
But the guide does add, optimistically: “don’t be put off – people with average fitness can do this trek. ‘Slow and steady’ is the key to achieving, and enjoying, your trek.”
The trek is one aspect of a very important mission. There is another. When the team arrives at Everest Base Camp on 23rd April, they will proudly fly Turkish flags and a depiction of the esteemed Founder of the Republic of Turkey, Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
By doing this they will raising awareness about Turkey’s combat veterans and will show that people with disabilities need not feel excluded or despairing but can also live their lives with hope and optimism.
The flag depicting Atatürk, the Turkish flags, flags of the Fethiye Municipality and Fethiyespor Football Club scarves were gifts from Fethiye Mayor, Behçet Saatci. The plan is not only to fly these flags at Everest Base camp but also to return to Fethiye with them.
For Ali Türkşen the trek must deliver one message loud and clearly to Turkey: “The most important ingredient in the Shoulder to Shoulder Project is hope. Hope is what keeps you going when times are hard and when you are in pain. Our Turkish Gazi brothers have so much hope in their hearts; this is something we must all learn from them. Everyone needs to understand the importance of hope.”
Gazel said: “I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to this project. The work we’re doing to increase awareness is giving moral support to Turkey’s Gazi and people with disabilities. We are looking forward to meeting our supporters again in Fethiye after the project.”
Herkese Bol Şanslar!
We are sure that, like us at Fethiye Times, all our readers wish everyone taking part in this awe-inspiring and courageous project the very best of luck. We look forward to seeing the Omuz Omuza team when they come to Fethiye again.
Many thanks to Tamer Günal for taking the photographs and making the video used in this story. He will also be taking part in the trek. This means we can expect some more wonderful images of the Shoulder to Shoulder team, as they make their way to Everest Base Camp.
Watch this space for news about these brave Turkish Gazi and the rest of the team.