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
"Her real name is Cheryl," he said, "but she's a real pain-in-the-ass. I call her Pia."
I got the joke. "All caps then?"
"Yeah, P-I-A. Pia."
As Wagner tried to convince me that real cyclists use salted butter--not the ever-popular Chamois Butt'r--to lube their man parts, Adam Baldwin joined us. At 6'4'' and 240 pounds, Baldwin could easily be mistaken for an NFL linebacker. He also looks much younger than his 47 years. The riders in this group know him chiefly as Animal Mother, the psychotic and nihilistic Marine in Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Vietnam war film, Full Metal Jacket. Baldwin, a Chicago native, has an easygoing manner and seems indifferent to his celebrity.
Our little group does not stay together long. Wagner takes off when we come to the beginning of a long, steep hill on the four-lane highway that we've been riding on for several miles. He is out of sight by the time Baldwin and I are halfway up the hill and when we crest the top, he has disappeared around a corner about a quarter-mile down the road.
At a brief rest stop in Converse, at a Chevron station across the street from a high school football stadium that is bigger than any high school stadium I've ever seen, a driver for Oak Valley Dairy stops to ask about the ride. "Alex" is stitched onto his uniform. He tells me that his brother did two tours in Iraq and that his best friend--"my boy," he calls him--was killed in Nasiriya on March 23, 2003, just four days into the war, when a group of Iraqis pretended to surrender and then opened fire on their would-be American captors. Before we leave the gas station, Alex waves me over to his delivery truck. "Do you guys need any water?" he asks. My sense is that we've got enough water to flood a desert, but he wanted to help and I wanted to let him. So I grabbed four gallons of spring water and put them into one of the support vans.
Tuesday's ride took us to Austin. As we arrived, John Wordin had the first group wait to allow the slower riders and the hand-cyclists to catch up. We then rode as one group to the O. Henry Middle School, where hundreds of students, many of them waving American flags, lined the streets and applauded wildly for the wounded warriors. Many had handmade signs. "Thank You!" "You Are Heroes." "Troops Are Tough."
After dinner, nearly everyone gathered in the parking lot of the Extended Stay Deluxe in north Austin. The photographers, who captured images from the ride and processed them in an RV they termed the "ScanVan," had put together a slide show of the day's activities. Most of the riders had a beer in hand to watch.
I joined a conversation between Allan Annaert and Ryan Clark, two soldiers who were in rehabilitation at the CFI. Clark is chubby and his ruddy cheeks are almost always stretched into a wide smile. His clean-shaven face and wire-rimmed glasses give him the look of a young professor. He lost his left leg in Iraq.
Annaert, a St. Louis native and a diehard Cardinals fan, married a local girl he met while stationed in Germany. He wears a tight stocking on his right leg, which was seriously damaged by shrapnel. He has also had surgeries to improve his hearing, which was damaged during the blast that injured his leg.
Clark was trying to convince a skeptical Annaert to try clipless pedals on his bike when Duane Wagner walked up. He was wearing shorts and a royal blue Hard Rock Café T-shirt from Hanoi. Although his carbon fiber prosthetic legs are just over a year old, they show considerable wear and tear. The right one, in particular, looks like it has been dragged behind a car for hundreds of miles--with large gashes and chunks missing.
Annaert told Wagner that he liked the shirt, but for several minutes the conversation remained focused on the virtues of toe clips. When there was a pause, Wagner used it to change the subject.
"I got this shirt when I went back to Vietnam in 1998," he said, describing a 16-day bike ride he took across the country with other veterans of that war. Clark commented, somewhat idly, that he'd be interested in going back to Iraq in 30 or 40 years to visit Baghdad or see the ruins at Babylon. Annaert said that he, too, would like to return to Iraq one day.
It's fine to return to the country, Wagner told them, but do not return to the site of your injury. He paused for a moment--as if to make sure that he wanted to do what he was about to do--and then began to tell us about his trip. Wagner explained that his unit was stationed in the Quang Tri province north of a village named Cam Lo when the North Vietnamese overran their position. He grew quieter as he spoke, his voice was almost a whisper. There were only five survivors, he explained, and one of them, one of his best friends, had lived in Austin and had hosted a reunion of the survivors a few years earlier. But that friend had since died, and Wagner told us that he worried about coming back to Austin because of the memories of his friend and their reunion.
In halting tones, Wagner described how some in his unit strung up dead Vietcong in their village to serve as a warning to would-be attackers. Pause. The young soldiers looked at him intently. "That trip opened the gates of hell for me. It opened the gates of hell."
"Thirty-eight men died that night," he said, choking back tears. He opened his mouth to go on but nothing came out. So he paused again. None of us said a word. The laughter from the conversations around was loud and, though there was no reason for anyone outside of our little group to respect the silence, the laughter made me furious.
Wagner walked off. He turned as he reached the side door of the hotel and for a moment looked like he was going to come back to finish the story. But then he waved and shook his head.
The beds at the Extended Stay Deluxe were not exactly deluxe. So in addition to the expected fatigue of muscles that had been underused for years, I woke with a stiff back. But I was still better off than Adam Baldwin, my roommate for the night. Our assigned room had just one bed and a short, beat-up sleeper sofa. Baldwin volunteered to sleep on the floor atop the sofa mattress. He found a used syringe under the sofa and tossed it aside with barely a comment--not your typical celebrity.
Baldwin and I had decided we'd spend the day at the back of the ride with the hand-cyclists, allowing us to spend some time with those guys and, importantly, to ride at a more leisurely pace.
Baldwin struck up a conversation with Lucas Goedert, a soldier who had suffered severe spinal cord injuries when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle rode over an IED in Iraq. The top was closed so when Goedert was sent skyward with greater force than the vehicle, his head hit the top of the vehicle and his spine collapsed like an accordion. After numerous surgeries, he walks now with a cane and, occasionally, loses his balance as he tries to stand up. Still, it's far better than his initial prognosis would have suggested. He rides on a steady diet of Percocet, Marlboro Reds, and five-hour energy drinks.
Goedert and Baldwin chatted about Chicago--Baldwin is from the northern suburbs, Goedert from the west side; Goedert is a White Sox fan, Baldwin likes the Cubbies. Then Goedert asked Baldwin about his career. He seemed not to know what Baldwin had done since Full Metal Jacket, so Baldwin talked to him a bit about Chuck and explained in some detail about the less glamorous aspects of working in Hollywood.
Goedert was impressed that Baldwin was doing the ride.
"I don't think too many of those guys in Hollywood would do this," he said. "I don't know if they're too stuck up or what."
"Well, I apologize on my colleagues' behalf," Baldwin replied.
"Oh, don't apologize. They're the ones missing out."
We took a short break--long enough for Goedert to take off his shirt. We were joined by General David Blackledge, the highest-ranking officer wounded in combat in the war on terror. I'd met Blackledge in Umm Qasr, Iraq, a week into the Iraq war. He is thin and looks more like a banker than a general. In February 2004, he was in the middle Humvee of a three-vehicle convoy when it was ambushed in Iskandariya. Blackledge saw his interpreter take a bullet through his head, and he suffered severe back and neck injuries when his vehicle rolled. His rehabilitation lasted 11 months, and he was redeployed shortly after it was done. In November 2005, he narrowly escaped injury in an al Qaeda attack on three hotels in Amman, Jordan. When Blackledge was introduced on the first day of the ride, he told the soldiers, many of whom are still on active duty, to call him Dave.
As we started to ride once more, Blackledge asked Goedert about the elaborate dragon-themed tattoo that covered the top half of his back. It was two interwoven dragons, their heads just below his shoulders, one of them black-and-red and the other black-and-light blue. He got them, he explained to us, because a dragon is a fierce fighter that shows no fear--sort of like he had been before his injury. A buddy suggested he add the colors--red representing his fiery temper and blue indicating he's cool.
On his chest, on his right pectoral muscle, Goedert has a tattoo of a baby's face--an image that looks like it was taken from a photograph. And on his two forearms, he has an intricate tattoo of skulls that form one single image when he holds them together in front of his body. It took six hours to get that one--Goedert fell asleep.
At about mile 35, we turned from the shoulder of a paved four-lane highway onto a small gravelly road. Goedert grimaced as his arms continued to turn the wheel in front of his chest. The difference in the surface made our ride slightly bumpy. It was the kind of change I probably wouldn't have thought about if I hadn't seen his expression. The road jostled his bike and shot searing flashes up his back.
Goedert talked about the pain and how he manages it.
"I don't know if you're a doctor, but don't judge me, man," he said to Blackledge, after admitting that he sometimes takes one more Percocet than prescribed by his physician.
"I won't judge you."
After we came to the top of a slight hill, Goedert stopped and put his head down on his wheel. He apologized to us. "Sorry for holding you guys up, man. This s-- hurts." His triceps had black streaks where the wheels had rubbed him as he pedaled. "I don't cry," he said. "But if I did, I'd be crying like a bitch right now." Two members of the ride's support staff tried to convince him to jump into the support van for the last five miles until our lunch stop.
"Are you f--ing kidding?" he said, and pushed off down the hill.
We stayed Wednesday night in Killeen and departed to a rousing send off the next morning at Fort Hood.
I rode much of Thursday morning with Chad Fleming, who was happily riding the bike Roger Staubach bought him. By midweek, it had become comfortable for me to talk to these soldiers and Marines about their injuries, and I asked Fleming what happened.
Fleming was in command of a small special ops group. In October 2005, on the day they were scheduled to leave Iraq--they had already formally handed off to their replacements and it was just 18 hours till their departure--Fleming's commanding officer came to him with one last mission. He was told that a high-value target had presented himself, and his guys were going to go after him.
Fleming and his men went out on a daytime patrol, and when they ran low on fuel decided to stage underneath a bridge viaduct. Almost immediately, they began taking small arms fire. Moments later, the enemy began dropping grenades on their vehicles. One grenade detonated two feet behind Fleming and blew him forward just as another detonated in front of him. Halon bottles--designed to suck the oxygen out of a vehicle that's been hit to prevent fires--went off. Fleming remembers intermittent smoke and darkness. He tried to open the ramp on the back of the vehicle to get out only to discover that the hydraulic lines had been severed in the attack. He had no choice but to climb onto the roof. In a matter of moments he was struck in the thigh and knocked off his vehicle. He continued shooting as he hit the ground and shortly thereafter passed out. (It was the second time Fleming had been shot in three weeks. On September 18, he had been hit in the chest. He returned to duty two days later.)
Fleming was taken to the Cash--Combat Support Hospital--where he underwent the first of more than 20 surgeries to save his leg.
"I tried to do limb salvage for 26 months," he says. During that time, he was redeployed to Iraq twice. On his first trip back, in the summer of 2006, he served as a detachment officer-in-charge for a special ops and sniper unit. None of his toes worked. He had several rods in his foot to give it the shape of a normal foot. He was missing a four-inch section of his fibula and a four-inch piece of shrapnel was embedded in his tibia. His Achilles tendon did not function.
Fleming would wake early for physical therapy and by midmorning he would be planning missions. And initially, he even accompanied his men on patrols and raids after taping up his foot. "It was like walking on a 2x4." After time, he worried that his inability to function normally could jeopardize his soldiers.
"I asked myself: Are my guys going to get injured because they're taking care of me? So, I stopped. If I didn't it would have been selfish. If one of them gets killed, how are you going to live with yourself?"
His second deployment came in the spring of 2007--against the recommendations of his doctor. Fleming served as a special ops liaison officer. "After getting over there, I'll be honest with you, it kind of sucked," he says. "I'm doing PT and you hear a mortar land right outside."
In early July 2008, Fleming made what he calls "the hardest damn decision of my life." Shortly after his injury, his surgeon told him to do everything he could before exercising "the permanent option." Fleming felt that he had and chose to have his lower left leg amputated.
"You can't put it back."
It turns out to have been a good decision. "Since that day, everything has been great. I've got absolutely no regrets since my amputation. I'm back to the old Fleming that I used to be. Now the only thing that I'm limited by is my mind. I have no bad days. I shouldn't be sitting here. I shouldn't be talking to you. I should be dead. Every day is a good day."
By that reasoning, Thursday was a good day. By any other standard, it sucked. Although we rode the first 29 miles with a slight wind at our backs, the afternoon was miserable. The wind, which had been coming from the south, simply switched directions, and we rode the final 36 miles into a 40-mph headwind.
There was virtually no conversation among the riders--suffering is a solitary activity. My longest exchange came when I rode past Duane Wagner.
Each time we had passed one another since our first encounter, he had mocked me. "I'm just hoping to finish," he'd say.
In this wind, my original goal seemed a lot less pathetic. "Still just hoping to finish," I said to him.
Friday was actually a great day. Fleming and I went out again with the first group--the hand-cyclists and the slower cyclists. Not long after we started, we had formed a three-man group with Mike McNaughton, a veteran of the Louisiana National Guard. McNaughton had become something of a celebrity after he challenged George W. Bush to invite him to the White House for a run.
McNaughton had been trained to defuse land mines. He was clearing a field 30 miles outside of Kabul on January 9, 2003, when he stepped on an antipersonnel land mine. McNaughton says he remembers being thrown up in the air with his eyes closed and hitting the ground hard. He knew exactly what had happened to him.
McNaughton first met Bush on one of the former president's many unpublicized trips to Walter Reed. McNaughton had woken from yet another surgery to be told that the president might be dropping by. He was skeptical. But Bush showed up. When they met, McNaughton, still under heavy doses of morphine, told the president that one day they should run together at the White House. It was a leap of faith--McNaughton had just had his right leg amputated and he had not yet been fitted for a prosthetic.
Before their first visit ended, Bush told McNaughton that he would, indeed, invite him to run at the White House, and once again McNaughton was skeptical. But not long after the visit, the Guardsman received a phone call from the White House asking about the progress he had made with his rehabilitation. Those calls became a regular occurrence. And on April 14, 2004, McNaughton ran with Bush on the White House jogging track.
On this day, I settled in with McNaughton and Fleming and we rode together for the first hour.
After a brief lunch stop, we set out again, this time with the fast group, which was larger than usual. This larger group maintained a steady, brisk pace, and several riders struggled to keep up. The fatigue--from a grueling ride on Wednesday into 40 mph headwinds and the long ride today--was evident on the faces of even the most experienced riders.
At about mile 65, we began to slow down so that the entire group could come together for a visit to Cleburne Middle School. We chatted at the top of the hill as we waited for stragglers, just around the corner from the school.
Suddenly, we heard what sounded at first like barking come from the back of the group. Everyone turned. McNaughton came charging up the hill, fueled by anger.
He dismounted from his bike, threw it to the side and ran to the front of the group. "F-- you guys," he shouted. "This isn't a f--ing race!"
McNaughton had been riding with the fast group for most of the last leg. At some point, however, he had been left behind.
"Nobody looked back! You guys with two legs--I'd trade places with you in a f--ing minute. So f-- you guys."
Several of the experienced riders in the group tried to calm him down. McNaughton was defiant. "F-- you!" he said as he made his way back to his bike. "Once more: F-- you!"
John Wordin and several other riders walked over to talk to McNaughton. The rest of us stood in stunned silence trying to make sense of what had just happened. I was standing directly in front of McNaughton as he exploded. Were his comments directed at me? We had ridden together that morning and had a great conversation. Did I breach some unwritten rule when the two groups combined? Should I have waited? Where is the line between support and pity?
By dinner, raw feelings had given way to jokes. As we climbed off the vans that took us to that night's dinner, John Wordin shouted: "Is McNaughton here? Can't leave him behind again." And by dinner the next night, when McNaughton presented Wordin with a gift from the riders, he was happily making fun of himself.
After dinner, many of the riders gathered for beers in the parking lot of our hotel--the Comfort Inn, Cleburne. The next day's trip would start a little earlier than usual--because George W. Bush was coming to address the riders and because we needed to arrive in Arlington early enough to attend a Texas Rangers exhibition game--but at 41 miles it was the shortest of the six days. The sense that the hard part of the ride was behind us was obvious in the number of riders in the parking lot and the number of Bud Light tallboys consumed.
I had just cracked my second when one soldier I hadn't spent much time with sought me out. We had been assigned to room together earlier in the week, but after dropping off his bike in the room (and learning that I was to be his roommate) he opted instead to crash with some others. During the Friday ride, we chatted a bit--mostly about politics and news--and discovered that we had similar tastes.
When he approached, I assumed that we would simply pick up that conversation. He had other ideas and asked to speak with me in private. We'll call him John. I'm not using his name or the details of his service because, for reasons that will soon be clear, I've never been more sympathetic to a request for anonymity. Also, he said: "If you use my name when you write about this, I will hunt you down and kill you."
No problem, I told him.
"This ride saved my life," he began.
For 30 minutes, I listened.
John had served in the Gulf war and in Somalia. He thought of himself as a badass--a professional warrior. Military service was all he had known and it was all he wanted.
In Iraq the second time around, John sustained a traumatic brain injury that triggered a downward spiral in which his physical injuries exacerbated the psychological damage he had suffered and his psychological damage led to further physical deterioration.
An extended stay in the hospital with little physical activity led him to gain lots of weight. If his injuries had been external and obvious, they might have actually contributed to his image as a war fighter. Instead, the extra pounds changed his body and he no longer looked like the warrior that had become his identity. He was embarrassed to see his friends, his fellow soldiers, even his wife and children.
"I didn't even feel like a man," he told me.
After his release from the hospital, he spent most of his time alone. He knew that he still loved his family and couldn't understand why he found solitude comforting. Most nights after dinner, he retired to his garage, worked on his car and had a drink.
"It wasn't a good drink."
At his lowest moments, he thought seriously about taking his own life.
When he first heard about Ride 2 Recovery, he dismissed any thoughts of participating. He was too out of shape. But as he fought off the demons of war, his mind repeatedly returned to the challenge of a ride. And finally, with the encouragement of his doctor, he signed up. As John began to train for the ride, he could sense some return to normalcy--not a complete recovery, but something.
On the ride itself, he struggled. He often required a push in the small of his back from one of the experienced riders as he tried to fight his way uphill. At other times, he had to get off his bike entirely and take a break.
It wasn't pretty, but he finished. "That's why we do this ride," says R2R founder John Wordin. "For guys like that."
I started the ride Saturday with Jim Penseyres, a Vietnam veteran and single-leg amputee. Penseyres is an accomplished cyclist. He has completed the Race Across America--a 3,000-mile ride across the country--seven times. He is thin and a bushy gray mustache covers much of his weathered face. Penseyres is soft-spoken and smiles easily. He is the amateur philosopher of the group.
When we had a moment alone, I told Penseyres about my conversation from the previous night. He responded with a parable.
Two guys are walking along the beach at low tide, one of the guys starts picking up the sand dollars that are all over the entire beach and begins throwing them back into the sea. After a few minutes his friend watching him says: "Do you really think you're making a difference? Look down the beach, there must be a million sand dollars on the beach." The other fellow just stands there for a moment in silence, bends down and picks up another sand dollar and shows it to his friend and says, "Well it makes a difference to this one."
Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (HarperCollins).