By Michele Vowell, Courier assistant editorMay 13, 2014
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- Dozens of Fort Campbell Soldiers lined up the morning of May 2 in front of the 101st Airborne Division Headquarters to cheer on about 150 Ride 2 Recovery Bluegrass Challenge cyclists.
The crowd waved and clapped as Sgt. 1st Class Richard Gatewood, Garrison command group operations, sped by on Indiana Avenue -- leading the rest of group, which included Garrison Commander Col. David "Buck" Dellinger.
Ride 2 Recovery is a nonprofit organization which provides physical and mental rehabilitation for injured Veterans and healing service members, with cycling as the core activity.
The Bluegrass Challenge included wounded or injured bicyclists, some assigned to Fort Campbell's Warrior Transition Battalion and those riding in support. The 375-mile ride started in Cincinnati, Ohio, April 27 and ended in Nashville, Tenn., May 3.
The cyclists rode onto the installation May 2 as a special tribute to the installation's Wounded Warriors, and to help raise awareness of the rehabilitative bicycling programs among Soldiers and the community at large.
"Fort Campbell always pulls through," said cyclist Sgt. 1st Class Jason Vickodil, during a brief stop at the post's WTB parking lot. "They put on an amazing show. Riding down all the roads and seeing all the Soldiers from the different brigades, I'm glad Fort Campbell did that for all these other Veterans who no longer get to see this [support]."
Just a few years ago, doctors told Vickodil he would never run again. The Soldier, who now serves in Fort Campbell's WTB cadre, severely hurt his back during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"I fell off a five-ton and fractured some vertebrae and ruptured some discs. So, I had to have some metal discs put in and some plates," he said. "I had four back surgeries to get it fixed."
Despite his injuries, Vickodil wanted to stay active. He soon found hope with Ride 2 Recovery.
"Ride 2 Recovery afforded me an opportunity to try something other than running," he said. "Ever since then I've been cycling."
As part of R2R, "service members are provided bikes to use, mechanical support, food, lodging and extracurricular activities. R2R customizes bikes to fit the service members and Veterans' injuries," according to the website.
Relaxing at the WTB Friday after about 300 miles of riding, former Fort Campbell Soldier Franklyn Harris said the Ride 2 Recovery program inspired him to move forward after six deployments and a service-related injury.
"When I got injured … cycling is what brought me back to life," he said. "I was in a bottomless pit and I didn't think I'd ever get out of it.
"Once I got into Ride 2 Recovery, my life changed," he added. "I got in better shape. I got to meet people who were going through the same issues I had. A lot of times when you have these issues and dilemmas, you think you're the only one. Yet, you're not the only one. That's why we're a big Family."
Harris lives in California and is pursuing his master's degree, but said his R2R Family offers him the support he needs to forge on in civilian life.
"The best thing is they push you so that after you're done riding, you're going to continue to push yourself to be better than what you were the day before. That's the key to everything -- keep pushing forward," he said. "[This organization] allows you to embrace something and be part of something more than what you were alone. You're only as strong as your weakest link. And these links are pretty strong."
Harris learned about Ride 2 Recovery from Todd Toomey, former Fort Campbell WTB cadre, who now works with the R2R as the director of Veterans assistance.
"I started off at 370 pounds. I had several injuries that kept me from doing anything," he said. "I was sitting on the couch and not doing a thing. One day, I couldn't tie my shoes. I started riding a bike."
A friend told him about Ride 2 Recovery and a week later he signed up for his first ride.
"It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life," he said. "I haven't quit since. I dropped 130 pounds. It's amazing. It changes you mentally, physically. Everything that you need is in this group."
During the R2R challenges, Toomey rides with the slowest group of bikers to offer support, motivation and inspiration to ride on.
"I could be on my bike for 10 hours," he said. "It's the ones that are new or severely injured. I spend all day making sure that they get to ride and that they make it in. It's long days, but it's worth it."
For the Soldiers and Veterans who completed the Bluegrass Challenge Saturday, the next event is less than three weeks away. The 325-mile Memorial Challenge, May 25-June 1, starts in Washington, D.C. and ends at Virginia Beach, Va.
For Toomey, the benefit of the ride continues long after each event ends.
"Having this network of all these riders, it keeps you happy. It keeps you going," he said. "It's an inspiration to everybody."