OCEAN SHORES — Five military veterans — each with a story of heroism and survival as a consequence of their national service — began a 4,200-mile bicycle trek across the country on Sunday with a dip of their wheels in the Pacific and a grassroots sendoff from local VFW and American Legion members.
For Steve Taylor, a 59-year-old partially paralyzed Air Force Vet from Denver who was first drafted into the military in 1971, the journey ahead is to demonstrate to others and himself how the injuries he suffered in 2004 have not stopped him from experiencing life to its fullest.
He is one of two men who will ride with hand cycles for what is being called “The Long Road Home Project.”
“This is to prove that if you want to, you can do a lot of things,” Taylor said after munching on hot dogs supplied by the Ocean Shores Lion’s Club and live music by Ted Vigil, a local John Denver tribute artist.
The group, formed largely through social media connections, will proceed over the next 90 days until the riders and a documentary crew, following with a trailer advertising the project and carrying their supplies, reach the nation’s capital. The project is intended to raise money and awareness for other veterans in need of services “in the long road to transitioning back to civilian life,” according to a media packet and detailed online website (longroadhomeproject.com).
The group’s outline of the ride notes that more than 50,000 veterans have been wounded in war since 2001, and more than 475,000 from all wars have been treated for post traumatic stress disorder.
By the end of the 90-day trip, the group estimates 1,500 vets will have committed suicide. In addition, it notes that 270,000 cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been reported since the inception of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 300,000 vets are homeless.
Casey Miller, a civilian and founder of Long Road Home, began the project after his own cross-country journey that he said he started as a way to find meaning in his own life. What he discovered was a way to bring people together to focus on a cause that needs attention, he says. Miller wrote a book about his first trip, called “6 and a Half.”
The group, which formed over Miller’s Facebook page, already has received coverage in the Bay Area, where a recent CBS San Francisco report noted the riders “include an openly gay veteran who served in Afghanistan, a combat photographer diagnosed with PTSD, a veteran who at one time was homeless and contemplated suicide and two paralyzed vets pedaling with their hands to inspire others just like them.”
The bicyclists will visit 13 states and have several homecoming celebrations planned along the route, but Miller and the other riders said they were surprised and overjoyed to see how Ocean Shores and local veterans turned out to send them off.
“This is a real warm welcome and it’s so pleasing as we start our journey” said Colleen Bushnell, 39, who retired from the Air Force after serving in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Bushnell is riding to bring awareness to issues women and single parents in the military face. She suffered PTSD and was a victim herself of sexual trauma, homelessness and faced suicide.
“I’m using this road to help me cope with those symptoms,” she said.
As a New York resident, Bushnell thanked the crowd for turning out to send them on their long road.
“We appreciate a real down-to-earth, hometown send-off for this project,” she said.
While Ocean Shores locals such as the IGA grocery store donated food, Image Signs in Hoquiam supplied a banner, Ocean Shores Office Equipment made posters, and the Ocean Shores Real Estate provided the space for the occasion, a number of people wrote checks to help in the fundraising and sponsorship effort. Miller said the goal is to raise $75,000, and about $64,000 already has been collected.
The riders headed to McCleary on Monday, with a dinner of bear stew awaiting. Boy Scouts in Hoquiam and Aberdeen put out flags to mark the route, and the group made a stop Monday afternoon for lunch in Montessano.
The other hand cyclist in the group, 41-year-old Glenn Isaac Fretz, said the overall goal is to help other vets feel “like we’re part of society again.” Fretz served during Desert Storm and earned the Army’s Service Ribbon and the National Defense Service Medal. After an accident left him paralyzed in 1994, he rebuilt his life and now has participated in over 10 wheelchair games.
“This ride is a way to say ‘thank you’ to all veterans and say, ‘Welcome home, what can we do to help your life?’” Fretz said.
Working with Ryan Creel, a 13-year veteran Army combat photographer who suffers from chronic PTSD as part of the crew and riding team, Miller hopes to complete a full documentary of the project, which can be traced online as the riders attempt to cover 40 to 100 miles a day, even if the start was far short of that.
“The Long Road Home exists for three reasons,”Miller said. “One is to give the veteran cyclists the opportunity to heal and to use the road to heal. The second is to bring awareness to veterans issues, and third is to raise money for veterans charities.”
After raising money to pay expenses for the trip, the group has committed a percentage of funds for Operation First Response, a non-profit that assists those wounded in military service.
“I have always wanted to do this,” Taylor said, noting the longest ride he’s ever completed was 500 miles. While he’d never been to Ocean Shores, his mother-in-law grew up in Aberdeen.
In the foreground, Vigil sang out a John Denver classic “Hey it’s good to be back home again.”
“This is a great place to start,” Miller said. “We hope to make this an annual event so maybe we’ll be back next year.”