The Magazine

The Long Road Back

A Texas bicycle ride helps wounded veterans rehabilitate and reconnect.

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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San Antonio, Texas

In late July 2008, as Chad Fleming sat on a stool during a crowded happy hour at Bobby Van's steakhouse in downtown Washington, D.C., he felt an intense itch on his left foot and did what just about anyone would do in a similar situation. He scratched.

Or he tried to.

Fleming, a decorated Special Forces soldier, doesn't have a left foot. It had been removed, along with the rest of his leg just below the knee, ten days earlier. So when he reached to scratch it, he missed and "took a nosedive off the barstool." Fleming was embarrassed, and the glares from the other patrons told him that they thought he was just drunk. Then they noticed his crutches and his missing limb.

"It was great," he says, in his distinctive Alabama accent. "We didn't pay for anything. The next day my buddies picked another restaurant and told me I had to repeat the performance."

Fleming still gets the sensation that he has feeling in his missing lower leg--"phantom pains," they're called. To him, they're very real. They must be if Fleming is willing to complain about them, even momentarily, because he doesn't complain much about anything. "It's debilitating. Sometimes you just have to sit down and wait 'til they're gone. You're just sitting and looking at nothing and wondering why it hurts." Doctors and physical therapists tell him that such sensations are normal, nothing more than attempts by the nerves that remain in his stump to send pulses to the ones that are no longer there.

The medics don't actually call it a "stump" anymore, and Fleming was told he shouldn't either. A therapist told him to call it his "residual limb," shortly before handing him a tight wrap to control swelling in his leg when he sleeps. The packaging identified the pantyhose-like item as a "stump shrinker."

"It's my damn leg," he says, laughing. "I'll call it what I want."

So he does. It's Jethro.

"Now, I go in and they say how is your residual limb. I tell them Jethro's doing great."

I met Fleming (and Jethro) in late March at the Center for the Intrepid, a state-of-the-art facility for wounded warriors at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. We were there to participate in the Texas Challenge, a six-day, 350-mile bike ride from San Antonio to suburban Dallas, sponsored by Ride 2 Recovery, a nonprofit group that uses cycling to help wounded warriors with their rehabilitation.

Fleming had been planning to make the journey on a hand-cycle, a vehicle that looks like the product of a one-night stand between a recumbent bike--the kind favored by fat, bearded men who like to tinker with things that come in kits--and the Green Machine big wheel that was popular in the 1970s. A hand-cycle has three wheels--two in back and one in front--and it is propelled forward when the cyclist repeatedly moves "pedals" in front of his chest in a circular motion, much as a traditional bicyclist does with his legs.

But three days before the ride was to begin, Fleming met John Wordin, the accomplished former professional cyclist who runs the group that organizes Ride 2 Recovery (R2R). Wordin looked at Fleming, who wears a size 50 jacket and has a 33-inch waist, and asked why he wasn't going to ride a traditional bike. Fleming told Wordin that he didn't have one, and Wordin promised to get him one.

Wordin was having lunch with Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach later that day and made his pitch. "I kind of put him on the spot," Wordin concedes. Staubach, who had met Fleming briefly, volunteered to buy him a bike. So Wordin went immediately to a local bike shop and bought Fleming a $1,500 all-carbon Scattante bike. Staubach autographed it, and Wordin presented it to Fleming moments before the ride began.

Fleming was stunned: "They said to me: 'Here is a bike. Now ride it to Dallas.' "

The first day of riding was meant to be easy--just 51 miles--from San Antonio to the town of San Marcos. In matching red-white-and-blue R2R jerseys, we set out from the Center for the Intrepid (CFI), home to 22 of the participants. As they would each of the following five days, the seven hand-cyclists--three with severe spinal cord injuries, two double-leg amputees, and two single-leg amputees--led the way.