Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Suck it up, buttercup’: Wounded veterans ride from Williamsburg to raise awareness

Retired Marine Carlos Rodriguez gets ready to take off for the final segment of the Memorial Challenge Friday morning. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Retired Marine Carlos Rodriguez gets ready to take off for the final segment of the Memorial Challenge on Friday morning. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Hampton resident and retired Marine Carlos Rodriguez hasn’t let his combat injuries prevent him from living an active life.

Rodriguez was a Marine in the Persian Gulf War. He said he was the most athletic guy in his squad — until a scud attack tore up both his knees and his left labrum. He then dealt with toxin-induced hepatitis, blood clots in his leg and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The biggest challenge of being a combat veteran, he said, is “waking up every day and knowing you have to overcome whatever obstacles are thrown your way that day, and if I make it through the day then there’s going to be tomorrow.”

Twenty-one surgeries later, Rodriguez is able to walk, but he’s not the athlete he used to be, and many of his scars can’t be seen. During his recovery process he said he felt “nothing but depression,” but said in recent years he’s drawn strength from fellow veterans — and his bike.

“Now before every surgery I tell myself I need to get myself together to get back out there with the guys and ride,” he said.

Rodriguez has been biking side-by-side with other veterans in the annual United Healthcare Memorial Challenge Bike Tour since 2011. More than 50 veterans took a 200-mile ride from Glen Allen to Fort Lee, making an overnight stop at the Residence Inn on Richmond Road before the last leg of the trip began Friday morning.

The Memorial Challenge is organized by Project Hero, a nonprofit that helps pay for medical care for veterans and first responders who have been injured or are dealing with mental health problems. Project Hero also has made tens of thousands of specialty, adaptive bikes.

Rodriguez has a recumbent bike, which allows him to lie on his back. Many of the veterans in the challenge own or borrow custom bikes which enable them to overcome their injuries. There are even bikes for those who have lost their legs and who pedal with their hands.

Christian Richardson is a 13-year veteran of Denmark's army and flew to Virginia specifically for the Memorial Challenge. He lost his legs in a 2009 IED attack in Iraq. "It’s been a very long journey, but with all the comraderie you start to think you can do it too," he said. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Christian Richardson is a 13-year veteran of Denmark’s army and flew to Virginia specifically for the Memorial Challenge. He lost his legs in a 2009 IED attack in Iraq. “It’s been a very long journey, but with all the comraderie you start to think you can do it too,” he said. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Many of the veterans said challenging themselves to recapture an active lifestyle helps them deal with residual pain, both physical and emotional. Getting back on a bike has helped some of them get off prescription medications, sleep more soundly and lose weight.

Having a task to focus on gives them reason to persevere.

“Every one of these people are mission-oriented. Cycling is a perfect match,” said Peter Bylmsa, Project Hero’s director of marketing. “’I’m going to make it up that next hill. I’m going to make it through the challenge.’”

Pedaling over the next hill can make living with a permanent injury seem a little bit easier, said Paul Wolf, also a former Marine.

Wolf had his lower right leg blown off in a mission and then reattached. He now rides his bike — which starred in the 2016 Tour de France under Yuri Trofimov — three or four days a week.

Getting to bike alongside his friends from Project Hero has become a source of inspiration in his post-military life.

Paul Wolf's leg injury hasn't stopped him from riding a bike. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Paul Wolf’s leg injury hasn’t stopped him from riding a bike. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

“My foot will hurt and I’ll look over at the guy next to me and he has no legs, and in my mind I say, ‘Suck it up, buttercup,’” Wolf said.

Simply being around people who have shared similar experiences and troubles is good for the soul, too. The group not only rides together, but they chat before, during and after their rides about their military service and their lives since.

Maharanie Gsxr, 47, spent 22 years in the Army, and said there are certain memories from Desert Storm and a deployment in Bosnia she has “programmed” her brain to forget.

The Florida resident revisits those memories when she visits Virginia to get together with other veterans for the Memorial Challenge each year.

“I felt like, when I got out, I couldn’t relate to civilians and blend into my community. This had helped me gain confidence again,” Gsxr said. “Sometimes we do [talk about our experience], but we do so comically. We joke and we laugh about stuff. It makes me feel like it’s not that serious. It’s going to be OK and I’m going to make it.”

The Memorial Challenge leaves the Residence Inn and heads to Richmond road. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
The Memorial Challenge leaves the Residence Inn and heads to Richmond road. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Drivers passing the Residence Inn may have seen the fleet of rider pedaling onto Richmond Road — and the veterans said they wanted to be seen by the citizens they served.

“We serve, we experience traumatic events, and once the war ends that doesn’t stop for me,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a lifelong process. I just want to tell the American people not to forget about us.”

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