By Richard Rhinehart
Virginia Beach, Virginia, August 28, 2012 – On a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in late July, the beach at this popular Atlantic Ocean seaside resort was filled with happy, enthusiastic riders who had just completed the journey of their lives – a cross-country bicycle ride. For two months beginning on Memorial Day, the team of 14 veterans and two pilots rode from San Francisco across the North American continent as members of World T.E.A.M. Sports’ 2012 Sea to Shining Sea ride. Along the way, the team met Americans in cities and communities both big and small, saw the nation they served as members of the military, and learned about their country and themselves.
For New Hampshire Amy National Guard veteran Jonathan Snodgrass, the nearly 4,000 mile ride offered an opportunity to prove to himself that “training is nothing” and that vigorous physical exercise can help in the healing process. Managing PTSD from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Snodgrass said the ride showed him that he “can get up off my couch and ride 50-100 miles if I really want to.”
Tennessee Marine Corps veteran Michael Manning struggled following his return from Iraq in 2003. Through a friend’s help, he discovered bicycling as a means to experience freedom through exercise. The cross-country ride taught Manning “how to be happy, smile and laugh again - something that I haven’t done in a long time.”
“The things I learned on the ride about myself was that I am in better shape than what the doctors have told me or lead me to believe,” said West Virginia Army veteran Glenn Goulet. “I learned that whatever branch of the service we served, we can have fun and work together.” Injured during an assignment in Panama, and later diagnosed with a lung ailment, Goulet noted that the Sea to Shining Sea ride was a very personal experience for him.
“For many years, I have had internal hate towards my country, because I was injured while serving them, and was let down when they didn't feel they owed me anything for my injuries,” Goulet said. “I never even wanted to show the American flag. After seeing what the people of our country did for us on this ride, I changed my mind. I enjoy seeing the flag again.”
Eagle River, Alaska Senior Master Sergeant Michael Sanders is retiring from the US Air Force on September 1. He looks back at his cross-country ride as an opportunity for learning. “Learning is something that comes every day, so to say did I learn anything would be an understatement,” he said. “I learned that this country is still full of patriotism…that there are many people who truly respect the military and are very appreciative of the sacrifices we make. I learned that I will miss the military as I retire, but also know that it is time to move on and do some things in life that I’ve always wanted to do…what those will be, only time can tell.”
Sanders also has strong feelings about individuals living with disabilities. “I’ve learned that disability is not my word of choice and that adaptive ability is more to my liking. That normal is only what one believes it to be and not what society dictates it to be.”
For the team of riders, there were many favorite memories, such as the stop in the small community of Olney, Illinois. “Coming into Olney, with the town lining the streets, and the American Flag at the end of the road,” was a favorite memory of Manning. “They had people out for several miles to cheer us on,” recalled Goulet.
A cancer survivor, Sanders remembered a special visit several team members took in St. Louis. “I loved the opportunity to visit at the Siteman Cancer Center and meet with my counselor, my ENT, nurses, PA, and most importantly, the cancer patients,” Sanders remembered. “With other members of my team, we were able to bring a little hope and joy while they were receiving their chemo…tears were abundant but it was mostly the smiles that we were blessed to receive!”
With the completion of the ride in Virginia Beach, the team headed back to their homes across the country, returning to their lives. “I don’t have a bubble bus following me around on my rides here at the house, and filling up my bottles every time I stop,” said Manning of his current bicycle rides.
Many of the riders are discovering they are missing the close relationships they built with the team, and with other participants. “Many of the day riders were amazing, especially the sponsor types … Bob, Lon, Van, Jim, Timra … one special rider was our English friend going around the world, Tom Riley,” Sanders recalled. “When our support crew rode with us, it would always add another dynamic to the ride. As we got stronger, we would wonder what we would have to do to get them to the end and often we were delighted to have them and their fresh legs pulling us along. Others we met were folks from the cities … one of the reasons I did this ride was to meet the people in which I have served and sacrificed so much for. I truly believe that goal was met! I had the opportunity to meet with so many, either through an interview, a stop in a city, or a simple passing by and taking a moment to stop and say ‘Hi, how you guys doing?’ Those were the special moments!”
Goulet also misses his colleagues from the ride, particularly Manning. “Who would ever think that a Marine and an Army soldier could bond,” Goulet said of Manning. “He is a good leader and has a wealth of knowledge of cycling, and was willing to share it.”
“Each day was special as I never knew what was to come,” said Sanders of the Sea to Shining Sea ride. “I could be simply riding by myself, helping a friend get up a hill by pulling them, encouraging someone to keep pressing, leading a group for the day, absorbing the beauty of the area we rode through, racing down the road on occasion, leading the team down the road or being the last person going down the road … all of these are special and there are more that will resonate with and in me.”