By Wallace McBride, Fort Jackson LeaderMay 17, 2012
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Jeremy Staat and Wesley Barrientos would like to have your attention, please.
The two veterans are biking across the nation, travelling 4,500 miles across 14 states in 100 days, to draw attention to health care challenges in the military. Last Thursday, the pair arrived at Fort Jackson, stopping at Post Headquarters on their way to Florence.
"Every program needs awareness," said Carl Lopez, retired command sergeant major for Fort Jackson and president of the Military of Order of the Purple Heart in Columbia. "And if our system isn't working, it needs to come out. I respect what they're doing and I hope other communities come out and support them the best they can."
Barrientos, who was with 101st Airborne Division, was wounded on three occasions during his three tours of Iraq. In 2007, he was severely wounded after his vehicle struck a roadside bomb. He lost both of his legs in the attack.
"Jeremy and I are from the same hometown," Barrientos said. "In 2010, one of the guys from my unit, Brett Land, was killed in Afghanistan. He happened to be from my hometown, too. I decided to get off the couch and do something to honor him. I miss being with my brothers, I miss being in the fight. I can be next to them fighting, so I might as well fight for them when they get out."
Staat, an Iraq veteran and former NFL football player, met Barrientos during a Homes for the Troops event in their hometown of Bakersfield, Calif.
"It just happened to be Wesley's home," Staat said. "The apartment he was living in was broken into and his TV got stolen. He was more upset that he couldn't watch the NFL draft that weekend. We hit it off and had the opportunity to go out into the community and do some motivational speaking to our youth there in Bakersfield. We saw a huge need to continue forward with it. Now, a year later, here we are riding across America."
May 10 was day 82 on their trip, which will wind down on Memorial Day at the Veteran's Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
"Jeremy came up with the idea of riding bicycles across the country," Barrientos said. "I said, 'Absolutely,' but it had to be for a good cause. We came up with four great causes: the veterans' suicide rate, more efficient VA health care system, veterans education centers on all college campuses, and childhood obesity. I'm not going to kill my body just for anything."
"If we can save one life, change one person's thinking, then the ride was worth it," Staat said. "It's important to me to inspire our youth, to show them that, if they want something, they have to go out there and get it. Hopefully, by doing something like this, we'll bring awareness to the epidemic of childhood obesity, as well."
Staat, who became a Marine after his football career ended, said untreated mental illness is more dangerous to members of the military than the physical dangers they're facing on field missions.
"They're looking at over 6,500 veteran suicides just this year," he said. "We've already surpassed the numbers of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan right here in the United States out of our Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans. Of our Vietnam veterans, we lost over 168,000 to suicide that we know about. Currently, it makes the United States the most dangerous place for veterans."
Barrientos, who uses a hand-powered bicycle, took a spill a few weeks ago and is having to sit out the final weeks of the trek. After injuring his arm, he decided against risking permanent injury to his arms by aggravating the injury. He is still with the group, assisting from one of the four vehicles travelling with Staat for the remainder of the journey.
"I love what he's doing, bringing information out to the community about the Wounded Warrior program and the Veteran's Administration," said Sgt. 1st Class Wayne Bailey, noncommissioned officer in charge with the strategic planning office.
"Jeremy was always different. I knew that Jeremy was going to do big things, something that would require a lot from him," said Jeremy's mother, Janet Staat Goodheart, who is the treasurer for The Staat Foundation. "I knew he had leadership abilities in him and thought when he made it to the NFL that was probably pretty big. But it's a great honor to see him touch the lives of our veterans and fight for their rights. I'm very proud of him."