As the millions of men and women who served their country will celebrate and be celebrated this Veterans Day weekend, thousands of them will take part in what has become a ritual of equal parts calisthenics, catharsis and closure.
The feeling of freedom that comes from riding a bicycle, ingrained in us from that first pedal stroke as kids, has become for many veterans a way to reconnect with themselves, their families and the world. Having since been adopted as recovery therapy by the Veterans Administration, what began as an experiment only 11 years ago is now a movement, with dozens of national and local organizations whose sole focus is to help, heal and even save veterans’ lives through cycling.
You can meet and ride with members of the military this weekend at all Performance Bicycle stores, as we join with veterans and the national organization No Vet Alone on this, the 100th anniversary of the end of the first World War.
These are some of their stories.
As a Marine corporal taking part in the humanitarian deployment to Somalia that was Operation Restore Hope from December 1992 to February 1993, Carlos Vera faced the violence and horror that came with a country ripped apart by civil war. President George H.W. Bush had sent Americans to help the United Nations secure food supplies, and they were caught in the middle of rival clans fighting for control of the country.
Vera said he was prepared for some of what he and his corps mates went through. Some, but not all.
“We lost one of our Marines to sniper fire. That was one of the things they’d do to us,” Vera said. “But we trained for that. We trained for the sniper fire.
“We didn’t train for the famine and starvation of all those Somali people. We didn’t train for that kind of death.”
With the warring factions stealing even basic food aid, more than 300,000 Somalis had died of starvation by the time the Americans had arrived. Millions more were displaced and clinging to life. The faces of the dead and dying men, women and children burned into Vera’s brain like horrifying lasers and remained there for years afterward, haunting him.
“The biggest problem was shaking the images and hearing the screams,” he said. “I’d wake up with night terrors. I’d see the dead people standing there at the foot of my bed.”
The apparitions stayed with him after he left active duty in September 1997 and became a major cause of his post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He descended into anger, aggression and depression, unsuccessfully treated with a half-dozen psychiatric medications.
“I got really bad, I mean really bad,” Vera said. “I went a long time with it. I really needed help.”
He found it in 2014 in the form of a cycling program at the Veterans Administration in California’s Bay Area. Initially hesitant to ride the bike – “I fought it because they’d take me places that I’d never been, and it would always trigger the thought that we’d be in an ambush” – Vera found relief that pharmaceuticals couldn’t provide. Mile after mile, his world opened back up to him.
“I started to enjoy life. I started to see the beauty of life,” he says now, living in Portland, Ore. “You know, I was always thinking about just going from Point A to Point B, to scan and look for threats. On the bike, I see the beauty of the trees, the lakes, the trails.
“To me, it means a lot more than physical activity. I sometimes still see the images of the people dying and suffering, but I’ve come to terms with that now. And when I’m having an off-day, I just get on my bike and climb a steep hill and get all my aggression out.”
John Wordin was a former professional cyclist and director of the domestic Mercury Cycling Team through its final season in 2002. He has been around bikes for all of his adult life. As the founder of Ride 2 Recovery, the nonprofit group now called Project Hero that organizes cycling support nationwide, Wordin has seen thousands of veterans take to the road on bikes and find peace, freedom and themselves. Now he has founded a new group, No Vet Alone, with a similar message to spread.
“The way I describe it: Do you remember the first day you ever rode a bike without training wheels? That’s the feeling you get,” he said. “It’s independence. It’s freedom. It’s wind in your face. It’s a sense of normalcy.”
It’s an idea that began 11 years ago, when Wordin hosted a severely burned Army veteran for the weekend at his California home. Wordin said the inspirational spark came from trying to get his friend to just get on a bike. At that moment, his personal passion turned into a possibility.
“He hadn’t really done much. He had gained a lot of weight, was on medication, and he was taking additional self-medication,” Wordin said. “I started teaching him how to ride to see how it affected him, and then I went riding with him and a group of riders from the Palo Alto (Calif.) VA, and I knew immediately that this was something big.”
Wordin and the Palo Alto VA held their first event on Sept. 30, 2007, with just a handful of riders. But the following January, Wordin found himself meeting with Jim Nicholson, the Secretary of the Veterans Administration. Out of that was born the symbiosis between the VA and cycling to treat injuries physical and mental and the continuing catastrophic fallout from them both.
Example: A report released in September cites more than 6,000 veterans committing suicide each year from 2008 through 2016.
“When you’re dealing with physical injury, depression or other mental-health issues or you feel like you want to end your life,” Wordin said, “being able to get that freedom, with no boundary limits, it’s like shackles and chains have been removed.”
Airman First Class Delvin McMillian contacted Hantavirus while in the Air Force in 2001, at age 21. The illness caused massive organ failure that cut off the blood flow to his extremities; to save his life doctors were forced to remove both legs, half his right forearm and his left hand. Dreams of one day becoming a pilot vanished with the reality of life as a quadruple amputee.
His limbs gone, McMillian found in their place a competitive drive he hadn’t known before. Within four years he was active in wheelchair rugby, becoming a standout player and, in 2010, a member of the U.S. National team.
It was that same year, on a flight back from a rugby tournament in Tampa, Fla., that McMillian was spotted by an employee of United HealthCare, then a national sponsor of Wordin’s Ride 2 Recovery. The conversation focused on cycling, and on Wordin’s program for veterans. McMillian’s mind was gradually steered toward a new goal.
“My first reaction was, I wasn’t sure about it. Cycling had never been something I’d been interested in,” he said. “Like most kids, I’d ridden my bicycle around until I was old enough to drive but not since. But I figured I’d give John a call and see if it could be a new challenge for me.”
The challenge was Wordin’s, too.
“He called me up out of the blue one day,” Wordin said, “and he just said, ‘Hey, I saw some pictures of an event you did, and I want to do that. Can you do that for me?’”
Up to that point, no. Wordin had never made a road bike for a quadruple amputee. No one had.
“I called up Shimano and had them send me every braking and shifting system they had for mountain bikes, road bikes, tri and BMX,” he said. “I set all those parts and handlebars in the warehouse, and every day I would spend a few hours working so the guy could shift, brake and steer. I ended up coming up with something and it worked like a champ.”
McMillian flew from his home in Alabama to California to try the bike, which shifted with Shimano’s first electronic groupset. Being attached to the pedals proved a challenge, and he went through every cyclist’s rite of passage by falling while clipped in. But he found on the bike a new way to channel his drive. Within weeks, he was taking part in a six-day, 350-mile Ride 2 Recovery through Texas.
“It was definitely challenging but man, was it fun,” McMillian said. “I was with guys who were used to riding like 400 miles a week, and that was something I thought there no way I could do. But there I was.
“Who’d have thought I’d be riding 40, 50 or 70 miles in a day?”
He’s done multiple weeklong rides since.
I first met retired Air Force Lt. Col. Stu Carter in 2008 during RAGBRAI, the weeklong ride across Iowa and the largest event of its kind in the world. He was riding a tandem with no one in back, only a helmet and a name, “Sonny Sonnenberg.” I jokingly asked him where his stoker was.
“Heaven,” he replied.
Lt. Col. Kevin “Sonny” Sonnenberg was an Ohio Air National Guardsman who died when his F-16 crashed in Iraq the year before. Carter, the founder of the Air Force Cycling Team for active members and veterans, rode the tandem alone from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, all 471 miles in Sonnenberg’s honor.
The Air Force team was the forerunner of military cycling organizations, by then more than a decade old, and the link between the teammates became evident as we rode together on the backroads of the Hawkeye State.
“There’s a sense of worth, a camaraderie with other military people that they like to be with. They’re comfortable riding with guys who have had similar experiences,” Carter said recently from his home in Arizona.
In the decade since that Iowa ride he founded the veterans’ cycling support organization VeloVets; his newest is the group’s chapter in Sierra Vista, south of Tucson and home to Fort Huachuca and thousands of veterans. He has built tricycles for disabled vets, some as old as 87, and continuously works to bring veterans into the sport.
“A vet will go to a therapist to work on his or her emotional state, and if that therapist has served in a war zone too that credibility goes a long way to pulling down the walls,” Carter said. “When you ride with other vets, who know what you know or what you’ve been through, it’s the same thing. The walls come down.”
Air Force retiree Pat Ryan agrees. He lives in Washington and Arizona, wintering in the desert and riding nearly every day, or mostly. Many of his rides are with fellow vets, and he’ll be among a large number of veterans who’ll meet for the No Vet Alone/Performance ride in Tucson.
“Veterans need a way to stay fit, and they need a way to clear their heads,” Ryan said. “Bicycling lets them do both, and it creates an opportunity for vets to be with other people who have experienced a reality similar to their own.
“That’s healing in itself. That’s mental clearing.”
McMillian said the support he receives from ride mates helps him reach his own goals, whether it’s been the next ride, the next mile or the next climb.
“When it comes to cycling, especially on something like a Ride 2 Recovery, you’re with other veterans alongside you, encouraging you and helping you out,” he said. “Every time I come upon a steep hill. I’m like, ‘Man, this is grueling.’ But you know what? You’ve got guys alongside you who will help you out. They help you through it.”
Ken Kingsley, 72, lives in Sierra Vista, Ariz., too. He served four years in the Air Force at the beginning of the Vietnam era, from 1963 to 1967. He rides with Carter’s VeloVets group and marvels at the disabled veterans he sees in the area powering up climbs without complaint.
“There’s very little ‘woe-is-me’ crap going on and that impresses me,” he said. “I’d be bitching and moaning every foot, much less every mile.
“But they seem to be nonplussed by their disabilities. They tend to ignore it. That makes you want to be out there with them. They’re an inspiration, really.”
McMillian knows that he inspires when other cyclists see a quadruple amputee riding a road bike. There’s little doubting that. And yet he can be equally uplifted by others.
“One of the thing about riding with veterans, somebody alongside you might be in an even worse situation with limb loss, but they’re out there, doing the miles,” he said. “Just to see somebody who might be worse off, it’s an encouragement.”
Vera has become an evangelist of sorts. Once withdrawn and angry, now he’s openly cheerful, spreading the word about the cycling-veterans connection to everyone he can.
“I love talking about it now. Had you asked me back in 2014, I would not have done this interview,” Vera said. He has since introduced his brothers, also Marines, to the freedom that comes through pedaling.
“Now that I’ve seen how it has helped me, and my family, now I want to talk to whoever, whenever.”
Wordin said he needs more preachers because getting the word out is the hardest part. Recreational cyclists, he says, are more than happy to join veterans’ rides – when they hear about the opportunity. That’s a big reason he’s partnered with Performance on this Veterans Day weekend – for the visibility that a one-day, nationwide event can bring.
“I created this program 11 years ago and there’s been tens of thousands of people who have come through it,” Wordin said. “You look at what it does for people in terms of improving mental and physical health, reducing prescription drug use, reducing stress. The saving of, the changing of lives, families and marriages. It motivates me to want to do more.”
And, most importantly, you can just ride with a vet whenever and wherever you get a chance. Offer them a pull. Or a push. Or words of encouragement.
And say thanks.