Injured veterans 'Ride 2 Recovery'
March 22, 2012
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Lt. Col. Kimberley Norris-Jones had given up.
She was exhausted after crossing a three-mile bridge on a recumbent tricycle, and was met on the other side of the bridge by harsh winds. Designed to offset physical disabilities, recumbent vehicles allow riders to pedal from a seated position. Hills present special obstacles for recumbent riders because they can't use their body weight to pedal against a slope's resistance. The day's unpredictable terrain had drained her.
She was nowhere near the end of the day's ride, but she had already given up. Norris-Jones decided to find some other way back to camp, declared that she was "done." That was when her pusher intervened. Pushers are cyclists who assist riders in non-traditional vehicles to navigate hills and obstacles and, in this case, Norris-Jones was acting as her own obstacle.
"He said, 'Let's go,' and started pushing me," she said. She lasted another eight miles on the route that day.
It was a small part of a 424-mile trip that made up Ride 2 Recovery's "Gulf Coast Challenge," designed to support physical and psychological rehabilitation programs for injured veterans.
More than 200 cyclists spent six days biking from New Orleans, La., to Tallahassee, Fla. Norris-Jones was among 10 riders from Fort Jackson's Warrior Transition Unit to participate in the event.
"It's about camaraderie," said Staff Sgt. Brian Talkington. "The riders can be among people like themselves with the same issues. They can talk and get to know people. It's not a race -- it's team building."
It was a regimented trip that put cyclists on the road for most of the day, in weather that was often unforgiving. The most positive thing Talkington could say about the weather that riders experienced along the Gulf Coast was, "It didn't rain on us."
"I'd never been on a bike before, never wore the locked-in shoes," said Master Sgt. Brian Jarvis. "Everything was brand new to me. I was worried about doing something stupid and getting other people hurt."
Many of the riders in the Gulf Coast Challenge were active and retired military coping with physical or emotional injuries.
"It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, being around other Soldiers who are enjoying social activity for the first time in many years," Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Aubrey said. "And to realize you're not alone."
"How does riding a bike help you?" Norris- Jones asked. "You're around people that understand what you're going through. You're physically active, so endorphins are kicking off. And you get to accomplish something that not many people get to do."
"When you're pedaling out there you've got a lot of thinking time," Jarvis said. "You find out real quick that it's not just riding a bike. It's very therapeutic. I look at my hand and there's certain things I can't do with it, but when you get passed by a recumbent -- somebody in a seated bike -- then I can't complain about my hand. It doesn't do me any good."
The sense of camaraderie was more than just a social exercise, Norris-Jones said. Part of the experience was witnessing how others were coping with their issues and understanding that everyone sometimes needs help.
"As much as you want to do something by yourself, sometimes you just can't and you have to ask for help," she said. "That's one of the things Ride 2 Recovery is teaching me, to ask for help. Because I'm not very good at it."
There was also a great deal of support from communities along the way. The residents of towns along the route routinely greeted riders as they trekked along the coast.
"I got goose bumps every time," Talkington said. "Fire trucks came out there and put flags up. Schools brought their kids out; sometimes we stopped to talk to them. We stopped at the Armed Forces Retirement Home on the coast and talked to some of the older gentlemen there. It was a good experience."
"The cities along the route were out in force," Norris-Jones said. "One community had every city-owned vehicle lining our route as we were leaving. It made me feel really good."
"It makes you realize people haven't forgotten, that people still care," Aubrey said. "It gives you a sense of accomplishment that you did right. People still appreciate what you do."
It was a pleasant change from the occasionally confrontational attitudes she's seen concerning service in the armed forces. As with most of the riders that took part in the Gulf Coast Challenge, Norris-Jones is still dealing with the aftermath of an injury.
"I get asked, often by my own family members, 'Why are you still in the military? It doesn't treat you very well,'" she said. "I tell them I serve because there are people out there who won't. As far as I'm concerned, my country's worth serving. I'm fighting to stay in. There's still stuff I can do."
Members of the Fort Jackson group have already signed up for cycling trips all over the nation, though scheduling will keep them from participating together in every ride. Some of the team is also lobbying to participate in a ride in Belgium set for June to commemorate the Battle of the Bulge. Jarvis said event organizers have limited the number of riders taking part in the trip and that the team is still waiting to find out if any of them will be able to participate.
"They're looking for folks who are strong riders, long riders and can handle hills," Norris- Jones said.
While it's still unclear if anyone from Fort Jackson will be able to take part in the Belgium ride, the post was well-represented at the Gulf Coast Challenge. Norris-Jones said the post had more Soldiers riding than even Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Benning, Ga. And participation could have been even greater if they had more equipment.
"We would have a wonderful biking program in the Warrior Transition Unit if we could get more bikes," she said. "Ride2 Recovery told us we brought more new riders than any other Warrior Transition Unit in the country and we're just a small company. People want to participate but we don't have enough material."