News: Wounded veterans gain freedom to ride
Story by Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
PITTSBURGH – They rode past children with waving flags, past fellow veterans who saluted them by, past Americans who came in all heights and sizes and skin color. All of whom had one thing in common, one thing to offer: Support.
These men and women riding past their fellow Americans were wounded veterans. They had made the decision to ride their bicycles from coast to coast. Now they were doing it – actually doing it – and they faced a sight of support at every city that surpassed their expectations.
“I can’t get the people’s faces out of my mind, waving flags, sitting out there in the heat for hours waiting for us. Just to stand up and cheer you on as you go by,” said Stuart Contant, a former Army helicopter pilot now living in Enterprise, Ala.
“It’s just a big country that’s more patriotic than I expected,” said Contant, who injured his spine during a crash in Afghanistan.
The trek began in San Francisco on May 22, and 52 days later they found themselves on their way to Pittsburgh with just 10 more days to go before reaching Virginia Beach. They dipped their tires in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, and they will dip them again in the Atlantic. Once this is all over, they will have left behind a trail of rubber 3,700 miles long.
“We’ll be able to say we rode every inch of this great country,” said Andrew Hartzell, of Alexandria, Va., an Army veteran who fractured his femur during Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga.
The group is made up of 18 core cyclists who represent every military branch, plus a group of other riders who came along for support. The trip was organized through World TEAM Sports, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing sporting opportunities to disabled athletes. The sponsorship came from State Farm Insurance who coordinated water breaks, lunch stops and lodging from start to finish.
They called this ride "Sea to Shining Sea" to incorporate the entire stretch of land for which these veterans served and suffered great sacrifice in doing so. Some of the riders lost a limb, others experienced head trauma, spinal injuries or post traumatic stress disorder.
Together the group has been able to encourage one another through the good weather and through the bad. Through the up-hill climbs and the down-hill winds. Through heat, through rain, through desert and then fatigue. Through the very country they served to provide freedom to its citizens.
And now, in a very real, tangible way, this ride across America gives these veterans a sense of freedom back.
In the case of Hartzell, for example, if it weren’t for his bicycle, he wouldn’t be walking without the need of a cane today.
He was climbing a wall during a training exercise at OCS when he lost leverage, fell and another soldier fell on top of him. He twisted his thigh so violently that he fractured his femur. Even after surgery he wasn’t able to walk, so he was transferred to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for rehab.
He found the rehab process boring and time consuming, but when he tried on the stationary bike an odd realization came to him.
“I was not sure that I (would be) able to ride a bike, so I just thought that I would get on one and try it, and if I felt like I was going to fall or couldn’t pedal, I would just get off and give up. But I found that there was no impact, so it felt good,” Hartzell said.
When the rehab work began, his leg was so thin he could almost wrap one hand around his injured thigh. After six months of cycling he saw his body getting stronger, and within a year he no longer needed a cane to walk.
“It was riding itself that made me stronger, but also gave me the freedom … to get out and go wherever I wanted. I could get anywhere around D.C. faster than I could in a car or in the metro,” said Hartzell.
With this new-found freedom, Hartzell encouraged other wounded soldiers to take up biking. Then another idea came to him. What if he rode across America to bring awareness to the benefits of biking? He never imagined that 17 other riders would join him, plus all the supporting riders and sponsors who came along.
As the miles slipped past behind them, Hartzell became in awe by the sights before him.
“I’m just struck by how gorgeous this country is, and how lucky we are to have such a beautiful place to live … (But) the more important thing is how wonderful the people are of this country … I was struck by the hospitality of Americans and (their) patriotism. They gave everything they had to help the soldiers who came through, and that was a heartwarming and amazing thing to see,” he said.
Along their ride through Pennsylvania, the sight of Americans waving flags and shaking hands was the same as in any other state. Only the scenery changed along the way.
The land hand changed from the Pacific Ocean, to the mountains, to snow then rocks and sand, to desert, then corn and corn and corn for miles through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. Then some more again in Ohio, before finally reaching the hills of Pennsylvania. These hills could bring heartache to any cyclist, let alone ones with disabilities.
Because of their disabilities, a handful of the veterans rode hand-cranked bikes. During their up-hill climbs, this multi-branch group proved its unity as foot-pedal bicyclists pushed those who were pedaling with their arms in their low-ride, three-wheeled bikes.
“These are a bunch of great folks,” said Chad Jukes, of Salt Lake City, who had his right leg amputated after his vehicle hit an anti-tank mine in Iraq in 2006. “To do it together is really great. (There is) a really great sense of teamwork.”
Jukes, who is also an avid climber, said that along the route he was able to reconnect with soldiers he served with overseas and hadn’t seen in years. For him and other riders, it was the great joy of people that made a lasting impression into his memory.
“We met a lot of good people. I think that’s the biggest thing… People just showing up along the roads, waving to us, cheering us on,” he said. “The people, the scenery, the self improvement. I’m getting stronger every day that I do this… There are so many aspects of this ride that made it so much fun.”