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Greg Mortenson is the co-founder of the nonprofits Central Asia Institute and Pennies For Peace, and co-author of New York Times bestseller THREE CUPS OF TEA, which has been a bestseller since its release and was Time Magazine's Asia Book of the Year.
Mortenson was born in Minnesota in 1957. He grew up on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (1958 to 1973). His father, was a founder of Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (KCMC), a 480 bed teaching hospital, and his mother founded the International School Moshi. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War (1977-1979), where he received the Army Commendation Medal, and later graduated from the University of South Dakota (1983) and pursued graduate studies in neurophysiology.
On July 24th, 1992, Mortenson's younger sister Christa died from a massive seizure after a lifelong struggle with epilepsy on the eve of a trip to visit Dyersville, Iowa, where the baseball movie "Field of Dreams" was filmed. In 1993, to honor his sister's memory, Mortenson climbed Pakistan's K2, the world's second highest mountain, in the Karakoram range.
After K2, while recovering in a local village called Korphe, Mortenson met a group of children sitting in the dirt writing with sticks in the sand and made a promise to help them build a school. From that rash promise grew a remarkable humanitarian campaign in which Mortenson has dedicated his life to promote education and literacy, especially for girls, in remote, volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As of 2007, Mortenson has established over 61 schools in rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which provide education to over 25,000 children, including 14,000 girls, where few education opportunities existed before.
His work has not been without difficulty. In 1996, he survived an 8-day armed kidnapping in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) tribal areas of Pakistan. He escaped a 2003 firefight with feuding Afghan warlords by hiding for 8 hours under putrid animal hides in a truck going to a leather-tanning factory. He has overcome two fatwehs from enraged Islamic mullahs, endured CIA investigations and also received hate mail and death threats from fellow Americans after 9/11 for helping Muslim children with education.
Mortenson is a living hero to rural communities of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he has gained the trust of Islamic leaders, military commanders, government officials and tribal chiefs for his tireless effort to champion education, especially for girls. He is one of few foreigners who has worked extensively for 15 years (spending over 65 months) in the region now considered the front lines of the war on terror.
His cross-cultural expertise has brought him to speak at Washington, D.C. think tanks, the Pentagon, Dept. of Defense, libraries, outdoor groups, universities, schools, churches, mosques, synagogues, business and civic groups, womens' organizations and more. From March 2006 through 2007, he visited over 110 cities to talk about his message of peace through education. Congresswoman Mary Bono (R - CA) said, "I've learned more from Greg Mortenson about the causes of terrorism than I did during all our briefings on Capitol Hill. He is a true hero, whose creativity, courage, and compassion exemplify the true ideals of the American spirit." NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw called Mortenson "one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination who is really changing the world." Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today and the D.C.-based Freedom Forum, said, "Mortenson doesn't just climb mountains. He moves them, and through his courage, he gives hope and has changed the lives of thousands of children in a region of turmoil."
Mortenson advocates girls' education as the top priority to promote economic development, peace and prosperity, and says, "you can drop bombs, hand out condoms, build roads, or put in electricity, but until the girls are educated, a society won't change."
While not overseas, Mortenson lives in Bozeman, Montana with his wife, Dr. Tara Bishop, a clinical psychologist, and their two children.
Images courtesy Greg Mortenson