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
Forty-nine of us on upright road bicycles--they were called ten-speeds when I was younger--followed directly behind at a pace that was leisurely for us, fast for hand-cyclists. Our group included two-dozen soldiers with injuries sustained in the war on terror, some physical therapists and doctors, two Vietnam war amputees, an 11-time U.S. national cycling champion (Wayne Stetina), the co-star of NBC's Chuck (Adam Baldwin), and a retired Texas businessman (and Vietnam vet) who paid for the privilege. The USO, which buys bikes for wounded warriors, sent along a canteen truck and two cheerful staffers. Other support staff, including two highly capable mechanics, followed in vans.
After several miles, the pack began to splinter--with small groups and individuals forming a line that stretched several miles along the winding country roads north of San Antonio. Although most of us were filled with the energy that comes with the first day of a long-awaited event, no one was in much of a hurry.
The get-to-know-you conversations in a group like this are different than in others. I was naturally curious about the injuries of these soldiers and Marines, but too nervous to ask about them. But these are questions that wounded warriors are not afraid to ask one another, so time after time as we rode in those first few hours I listened in on detailed discussions that started with some version of the most obvious question to ask.
That question was at the front of my mind as I approached Duane Wagner on a back road that twisted between the cattle ranches of south central Texas. Wagner, one of the Vietnam vets, is missing both legs below the knees. His prosthetic legs are black cylinders, decorated with American flags. They are perhaps half the diameter of the shaved, muscular thighs that rest on them, and no one else on the ride wore anything that resembles them at all.
Wordin had introduced Wagner at the briefing we'd had that morning before we left San Antonio. The ovation he'd gotten from the group suggested that he was respected, even revered by those on the ride.
I was slightly out of breath when I pulled even with him. Wagner was pedaling methodically, his legs pumping without much effort. We pedaled together for a bit, and I tried to make polite conversation. Beautiful day. Ride much? Texas is pretty. I thought I'd throw him some lingo to demonstrate that I was down with wounded warrior jargon. That Bam-cee sure is an impressive facility, I said, referring to the Brooke Army Medical Center.
The conversation was one-sided. Wagner told me that he'd done a previous ride in California but otherwise kept his answers short. He wasn't being impolite, just not particularly friendly.
After several periods of silence, Wagner asked me what I was doing on the ride. "I'm just hoping to finish," I said in the annoying, sing-songy tone I unconsciously reserve for people with disabilities.
For the first time, Wagner looked up from the road ahead and turned his head to me.
"You f--ing pussy," he said, more in disappointment than anger.
I looked in vain for a smile.
"Hoping?" he said, his voice full of disdain.
I tried to explain.
I haven't been on a road bike in more than 25 years. I've had six surgeries on my knees. I've been riding my mountain bike, but the weather in D.C. hasn't allowed me to be out as much as I'd like. And I've had some real stiffness in my back.
I recognized that I sounded like the feline in his accusation, but for reasons unclear to me, I kept going.
I've been working a lot lately and although I get to the gym regularly, I've found that it's really hard to get in good shape on an elliptical.
Wagner waited until I was done.
"I'm 62 years old and a double-amputee who broke his back six months ago," he said. "And I'm going to finish. If you don't finish, I'm going to find your local newspaper and tell them to write a story about what a pussy you are."
"I'm writing about the ride for my magazine, so it'll be even worse. If I don't finish, I'll have to write that story myself."
That comment elicited a smile, finally, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared. "Oh s--, you're the journalist?"
I had been introduced to the group before we left. But Wagner hadn't made the connection--perhaps because I was now stuffed into tight biking lycra like a sausage, a sight that would make even the toughest warrior avert his eyes.
The conversation began to flow, and we chatted easily for several minutes. Then, without warning, he turned serious.
"If you write about me can you please mention my wife, Pia?" I wondered if she was sick.