My ultimate goal has always been to be a good and contributing member of my community and, ultimately, our society regardless of what career, family or personal path I chose to follow. Our society is built from strong communities, which are built with strong people. If we have weak and shoddy materials we end up with a mobile home of grief and greed instead of a stone house of pride and Patriotism. To me, the Army's Core Values have always been personal. These are values that I had instilled in me before I ever raised my right hand on 10JUN1986; loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage are not just buzz words for me. Perhaps it is because my father was a Marine and my dear friend, whom I consider to be a father to me, Roque Manrique, was an Army Green Beret. Perhaps they simply instilled in me what was instilled in them, which amounts to many, many lifetimes of military history.
Let's face it, our Country would not be what it is today if not for the gathering of strong, like-minded individuals who wanted their lives and the lives of their descendants to be better. A gathering of rabble rousers we call Patriots who organized themselves and their communities into a force to be reckoned with and we are still that same group today. That is what makes us Americans. It wasn't just a coup, but the beginnings of a greater society. And it worked! And here we are! And if not for the bravery and valor of those who voluntarily place themselves in harm's way to defend it, we would not be able to continue to enjoy being Americans.
I can no longer serve our Country in the manner in which I would like, as a Soldier, but, I can still serve our Country by providing for those who are serving in that capacity; Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen.
Twenty years ago, when I was injured, there was nothing out there as far as services for Veterans, either through the Government or as a third party organization, to turn to for assistance. I was discharged and received a DD214 and a letter from the then Veterans Administration welcoming me to their side of the house. It was over two years before I learned that I had educational benefits. I won't kid you either, it was like dealing with a multi-headed snake! I couldn't get one straight answer from any one individual or office. It was so frustrating that I often gave up for months before trying again to get benefits from the VA. In 2006 the Army began a program called Army Wounded Warrior Program or AW2 (not to be confused with the organization Wounded Warrior Project). Let's see, 1775 to 2006... that would be 231 years to finally develop a program for taking care of the seriously wounded. I would like to laugh about that but it isn't funny. That said, I applaud the Army for instituting this program and the men and women who worked tirelessly to see it through (standing ovation). They did a good job and I hope it is working as it should.
So, considering such a track record, I was really moved when I started seeing the emergence of organizations such as Wounded Warrior Project and Soldiers' Angels and Independence Fund. These third-party organizations are set up specifically to help our War Wounded and also those Military Service Personnel currently on deployment. These organizations are relatively small (compared to the size of the VA) and are prepared to help the Veteran at every step of the way. From the battlefield to the hospital and back home these organizations are always within reach; they are prepared to assist with whatever need be and if they don't have it, they go out and get it, period. I guess we finally decided that it was time to stop with the big bureaucracy and actually take care of the Troops as they should be cared for... as they deserve.
Two years ago I was able to join Wounded Warrior Project for their Soldier Ride in Texas. At first I had a hard time because of the callouses I had built up in dealing with the VA. It turned out fine though and, in the end, I had completed the ride and made a bunch of new friends. I also had a good appreciation for Wounded Warrior Project, what they are about and what they are accomplishing. That appreciation carried over to Soldiers' Angels this year when I had the chance to meet Toby Nunn (of Soldiers' Angels) on the 2009 WWP Soldier Ride. Toby and I talked about the Soldiers' Angels program and what they were doing for our Troops throughout the ride and I really liked what I heard.
Another contributing factor that set in the back of my mind while I planned this ride was a Navy Veteran I met on Soldier Ride 2008 by the name of Kevin Baker who was a paraplegic and suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Kevin was a nice guy; he told a good story; he would have made a good politician or, perhaps, a preacher. Anyway, Kevin came up with the idea of riding his handcycle from his residence in Oklahoma to Washington, D.C. carrying the American Flag, which he would have had flown over the White House and then turned over to Wounded Warrior Project for them to use as their official Colors. Kevin set out from his home on his handcycle towing his wheelchair with one small suitcase on it. He reached somewhere in Louisiana where a lady found him sitting on the side of the road in a cold rain. She called her husband who brought a truck and loaded everything up returning to their residence. They put Kevin in some dry clothes and put him in bed for a rest. Kevin died there in bed and never completed his mission. Regardless of Kevin's story, he was a Veteran and he was attempting to do something larger than himself. It cost him his life but, perhaps, he died knowing that he was doing something good. I only knew Kevin briefly but his story challenged me to do something bigger than myself and, so, I set about trying to bring America's attention back to the Troops who, for the past eight years, have been placing themselves in harm's way to protect our way of life; to bring recognition and assistance to the 31,000+ War Wounded Veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). OORAH, Kevin... R.I.P. Brother.
This ride would take me away from home for at least thirty days and would require some contributions from my wife and children as well. I sat down and drafted up a really rough plan which I then discussed at length with my family. After working through some scheduling issues, we all agreed that it wouldn't be a problem for me to be away from the family for a month and they supported me one hundred percent in my undertaking. I worked nearly every day for over eight months planning, organizing and training for this ride. For a while I had been kicking around the idea of a cross-country bicycle ride but that's all I had, an idea. After going on Soldier Ride and talking with Toby I began to get a better picture of how to go about putting together a ride. After those several months of planning and organizing I finally felt secure enough about my mission and, on 12AUG2009, I pedaled out of my garage and turned the nose towards Ground Zero and New York City. I chose Ground Zero as my destination because of its significance in our Global War On Terror (GWOT) and I chose Wounded Warrior Project and Soldiers' Angels as the organizations I would represent because I felt, and still feel, that they are doing such a great job taking care of our Military Service Personnel, wounded and otherwise.
Honestly, I had no idea what to expect once I reached New York. Outside of going to Basic Training at Ft. Dix, New Jersey and what I have seen on the television and in movies, I had never been up in that part of the Country let alone to New York City. The best-case scenario I could come up with was getting a room, pedaling around Ground Zero on 9-11 without getting run over, grabbing some food and maybe one of those double-decker bus tours without getting mugged and heading back to Texas on a bus. The city itself is so big and contains so much history that there was no way I could have hoped to see too much in just a couple of days. As it turns out, though, I was in for a grand tour that I would never forget.
I'll work on putting that all together for you and, for me. For now I wish everybody a Happy Thanksgiving... especially all of our Troops who are currently deployed. Without their dedication we would not be enjoying this time with our families. Thank you all for your service to our great Country. ESSAYONS!
Here is a picture of Kevin Baker on his handcycle in front of the Alamo. This picture was taken during WWP Soldier Ride, Texas 2008. Calm seas and fair winds, Sailor...