FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Two Iraqi combat veterans on bikes passed through Fort Benning May 3 as they continue on their trek from California to Washington D.C. to raise awareness for our nations veterans.
Jeremy Staat and Wesley Barrientos visited with Soldiers and civilians with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit and spoke about their current mission, which will be end in our nation's capital at the Vietnam War Memorial during Memorial Day Weekend.
"We really need to raise awareness for our nation's veterans," said Staat. "We need to highlight veteran organizations, veteran suicide awareness and promote Veteran centers on all college campuses throughout the country."
Visiting the USAMU made sense as the unit is preparing for a historic expansion with the creation of a Marksmanship Instructor Group and Paralympic Section, the first-ever Army units designed specifically for wounded warriors deemed able to continue to serve on active duty. This historic first is part of the Army Chief of Staff's initiative supporting Wounded Warriors and true display of the resiliency of the Army.
The Wall to Wall Ride, as it is known, began at the Wall of Valor in Bakersfield, Calif., on Feb. 19 with the goal of reaching the Vietnam Memorial Wall by Memorial Day 2012 for the 25th anniversary of "Rolling Thunder" and the 30th year anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. The ride is expected to cover more than 4,100 miles across 15 states over the course of 100 days.
"We need to breed a spirit of unity throughout the country," Staat said. "The most dangerous place right now for veterans is right here in the U.S., not in a combat zone. Suicide rates are skyrocketing so we need to heighten awareness and help these heroes out."
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates one veteran takes their life every 80 minutes, equaling roughly 6,500 veterans per year. While the ride across the country has gotten tougher as the heat rises and the end is in sight, those numbers are motivation enough for these two men.
"This has been a great experience," Barrientos said. "We visited at least 10 veterans' hospitals, half-dozen veteran homes, schools, an Atlanta Braves game--we have been exposed to a lot of people and are making a difference."
Barrientos served three deployments to Iraq. He was awarded two purple hearts after being injured twice during his second deployment. On Dec. 20, 2007, during his third deployment, his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device, where he was severely wounded and had both legs amputated.
"I've wrecked a few times and dislocated my shoulder twice (on the ride)," said Barrientos. "But it is all worth it when a veteran tells me 'thank you' or someone says that I have inspired them or motivated them to change their life."
Staat is a former U.S. Marine who enlisted after a brief career in the NFL. He played football at Arizona State University and was a friend and teammate of Pat Tillman, who talked to Staat then about joining the military. Staat said that the bike ride also has a secondary goal of promoting activity in youth and preventing childhood obesity.
"If I save one Soldier, one Marine, or one Veteran's life, then this journey is all worth it," Staat said. "When convicted felons in prison receive better care then some of our veterans, I have a real problem with that. As the wars draw down we'll have more and more veterans entering the system.
"We need to raise awareness, educate the civilian population and our youth, and become a powerful voice so our Veterans receive the attention and help that they earned and deserve."