By Rhonda AppleJune 4, 2012
For many people, the Memorial Day weekend is a chance to take advantage of the holiday weekend out of town. Others in the National Capital Region joined the mass of tourists who spent a patriotic weekend at Arlington National Cemetery or the many national monuments in Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas.
For more than 200 veterans, many injured in the line of duty and their cycling supporters, Memorial Day is the start of the annual Ride 2 Recovery Memorial Challenge -- a five-day, 350-mile bicycling trip from Arlington to Virginia Beach, Va.
According to the organization's website, R2R helps injured veterans improve their health and wellness through individual and group cycling.
The cyclists make the trip on a variety of bicycles, including hand cycles, recumbents, tandems and uprights. Along the route from Arlington to Virginia Beach, the Memorial Challenge passes many historical sites.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Nathan Hunt sat comfortably on his hand cycle before the ride began. "I got hurt May 10, 2008 from an IED [improvised explosive device] in Bagdad, Iraq," said Hunt, whose injury resulted in one leg being amputated.
Traveling to Arlington from home near San Antonio, Texas, Hunt prepared for his fourth Memorial Challenge. "I've been riding the bikes since August 2008," he explained. When Hunt first started training to ride, he said he completed 160 miles in two days. A full-time student, Hunt stays active. "I also run and travel around the country participating in [other] Ride 2 Recovery events," he said.
"For me, riding on Memorial Day and riding every Challenge is a great way to memorialize everyone we've lost. It's also a way to show others there are things out there for us to do," Hunt said. His advice for other injured servicemembers -- "Don't give up and keep hope in your life."
Medically retired with an amputated leg, retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joseph de Garay sat on the sidelines resting near his upright road bicycle before the start of the challenge. "This is my second Ride 2 Recovery event, but my first Memorial Challenge," he said. With a service-connected disability, the former Army Blackhawk pilot who served during the first Gulf War now works as a medical evacuation pilot.
"I can't run anymore. I've got a rod in my right leg from my knee to my ankle, and as you can see, I have no left leg. Since my accident about 15 years ago, I've been able to ride about 200 miles weekly," de Garay said.
"It's hard to explain to others [the significance of challenges like Ride 2 Recovery] but we have to give back … You're going to get injured [deploying to fight in war]," he explained "For me, there's no in between -- you're either dead or alive."
"I spent 11 months at Walter Reed getting rebuilt. I've seen some [servicemembers] come in after losing a finger and they thought life was over," said de Garay. "To me, this is to help the newly injured see that they can assimilate back to society."
Also participating in his second [first day portion of] Memorial Challenge was former Chief of Staff of the Army, retired Gen. George W. Casey. "The last time I did this was 2010. We left from Whipple Field on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall," Casey said. "It was 100 degrees [that day] and was the toughest ride I've ever done."
Casey, a strong advocate of wounded warriors, has also participated in Ride 2 Recovery events in other states.
"Being out here on Memorial Day with these men and women who are working to put their lives back together means a lot to me, and that's why I'm here," said Casey, who cycled the first leg of the challenge from Arlington to Fredericksburg.
The Navy's Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (manpower, training, personnel and education), Vice Adm. Scott R. Van Buskirk, addressed the crowd during opening remarks before the bicyclists got on the road. "This is a fitting way to begin Memorial Day," said Buskirk, who thanked everyone for their participation and reminded the spectators and guests of what this event represents -- the road to recovery. "Think about this over the next five days and remember what you represent," he told the participants. Motorcyclists from American Legion Post 10 in Manassas, Va., led the group to Virginia Beach. "We do most of the escort rides east of the Mississippi [River] for these challenges," said retired Army Sgt. Maj. Gary Hilton. Also living with a service-connected disability, Hilton said "This is a way I can help my fellow Soldiers."
Wearing a Ride 2 Recovery team cycling jersey and shorts, support staff volunteer Andrew McCorison stood on the sidelines with other supporters, cheering on the cyclists as they departed Arlington. A veteran Navy combat medic, who now works as a government civilian logistics support program manager for the EA-6B Prowler at Joint Base Andrews, McCorison couldn't participate in the event. "I've never done the Memorial Challenge and was hoping to participate, but I'm getting my ankle reconstructed," he said. "I'm planning on participating next year." McCorison explained his injury was not service-related, but the result of being hit by a drunk driver after he returned from war.
"This is a great event, and it's so important for our brothers and sisters in the military to get back together to communicate about what's going on [in our lives] and support each other," said McCorison. "This is a very tough time in our country's history. We have a high percentage of issues with post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury."
McCorison's voice choked for a moment as he fought back tears. "We really need to stick together to support each other so we never again have a brother like [Marine Corps Corporal] Clay Hunt, who came home and ended up feeling the only way out was to take his own life," he said.
Hunt was a Marine who served four years before being honorable discharged in 2009. He served in an infantry squad in Iraq in 2007 where he was wounded in action, receiving the Purple Heart Medal, and then served in Afghanistan in 2008 as a Scout-Sniper. He took his own life March 31, 2011.
"It's tough. So, to support our fellow servicemembers like this,[it] lets them know we're here for them on and off the battlefield."
"Memorial Day means a lot to everybody. It's steeped in history to recognize the sacrifice made by those who have gone before us and those who continue to serve," said Van Buskirk. "To see the young men and women here who are part of the Ride 2 Recovery effort and the entire support group is incredible. It's a great demonstration of commitment and sacrifice."
According to the organization's website, Ride 2 Recovery helps injured veterans improve their health and wellness through individual and group cycling.