Saturday, July 4, 2009

Four Days, four states, 1200 miles, and one short day with NVAR

I took off from my home in Penrose, Colorado headed for Cheyenne, Wyoming around 8:30 in the morning on May 15, 2009. I wasn’t in any big hurry; I wanted to be in Cheyenne by 5:00PM to meet up with the northern route of the National Veteran’s Awareness Ride (NVAR). I figured I could cover the 200 miles between home and Cheyenne easily by three that afternoon.

NVAR is a group of men and women, who ride to raise awareness for all Veterans issues:

This is a 10 day ride from Sacramento, CA to Washington DC through the scenic Heartland of America which began in 2005. It was started as a way for us to bring attention to the following issues:

· POW/MIA's.

· Remembering Veterans and their families.

· Educating the younger generations about the cost of Freedom

· Promoting healing for all veterans

It was beautiful that morning and around 70°F, but winds were gusting fairly strong along the I-25 corridor. When I stopped in Longmont for lunch, a man getting out of the car next to me asked if the winds bothered me. I told him, “They do today.” He was from out east, Massachusetts I think, and he said they didn’t have wind like Colorado’s. I didn’t get much of a break that day. The lady either blew around 20 mph to make me think I could rest, or she gusted to around 40 mph as if to say, “not a chance kiddo.” I was pretty beat up by the time I arrived in Cheyenne.

At 5:00PM I decided to try and find the Veterans home where the NVAR riders had stopped and instead ran into them in the hotel parking lot before they left for dinner at the VFW.

I met so many nice civilians and Veterans from all branches of the Armed forces that night, and the spaghetti dinner prepared for us by the VFW auxiliary was great! Some of the memorable characters were Mike and his brother Tom who don’t look at all alike. Mike is a great big giant of a man who gave me an original “Mike’s best bear hug” to welcome me. Mike rides a Goldwing Trike. His brother, Tom, rides a Harley which broke down the next day. (No Harley jokes lol…) Mike is a former Marine and I think Tom was in the Navy. There was Top, a former Marine, who gives soothing hugs but doesn’t hear real well; I don’t talk a lot until I get to know people, so it was OK that Top couldn’t hear me. I met another bear of a guy from the Cheyenne area, and we shared stories about our dogs. Jeff from Oregon was along for the ride and he is an Army Vet like me. Milo, who is also from Oregon, tries to ride with the group every year. Milo is the owner of the Rat Bike and Oregon Supply Milo beamed as I pulled up to the riders. His smile made me feel like I belonged to the group.

The next morning, after a wonderful breakfast at the American Legion, we left Cheyenne bound for Grand Island, Nebraska. It was about 37 °F, overcast, and drizzly. I was wearing a Silkie under my long sleeve t-shirt, a fleece, my leathers, and a rain jacket, but I still felt cold. I re-learned a lesson from a winter field problem in Germany. The Silkie was supposed to keep me warm but it also wicked the sweat away from my skin. After being in a warm building, and then riding at high speeds in the rain and cold, the moist layer over my skin was anything but warm. It was just like the time I crawled into the sleeping bag wearing my BDUs and long johns’ with the stove going all night in a GP Medium tent: sweaty skin and clothes in cold weather feels like ice!

The clouds and drizzle lifted by the time we hit North Platte, Nebraska for lunch. What a surprise that little town was! North Platte is the home of the 20th Century Veteran’s memorial. The memorial entrance, bronze statues, stone carvings, and the Walk of Honor which will house 8,000 commemorative bricks was magnificent and well worth seeing.

The North Platte Fire Department honored us with lunch at the memorial. I also met a woman reporter from the area who told me that each year a Nebraska group takes Veterans to the Wall in D.C. She said the Wall is a healing experience for many Veterans’.

Another seventy or more bikes were waiting for us at our gas stop in Kearney, Nebraska. There were so many young faces in the group, and it meant a lot that they wanted to join us on our ride to the Veteran’s Home in Grand Island, Nebraska.

As we rode into Grand Island, there was a huge American flag suspended from a crane that seemed to wave us into the city. There was another crane and flag waiting for us at the Veteran’s home. We got to visit with Veteran’s from World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. I met a Vietnam Era Veteran, Susan S. She is approximately my age, and it troubled me that she lives in the home. I know she is well cared for, but she has so many years left to live. I personally can not imagine spending the rest of my life in a nursing home. I bought Susan a NVAR baseball cap, and she was genuinely happy to receive the gift. Maybe next year I can talk to her a little more and find out how life led her to the Veteran’s home.

So often, women veterans are an after thought. Before I became a Veteran, I always thought of men when I heard the word “Veteran.” I think lots of people are the same way. I am rarely thanked for my service to our country. I served during Granada, and was at Ft. Bragg when the conflict broke out. I will never forget that morning. We were called in on a very early alert. Men from the unit were put in the gym to await deployment. There were NCOs at the pay phones outside the barracks to prevent us from calling home. The news of the conflict hadn’t yet reached the public. C-130s were having trouble lifting off at the air strip because they were so weighted down. I volunteered for deployment, but women were not deployed during the initial conflict. I think that morning; I really understood the oath I had taken when I was sworn into military service.

Women are much more active in forward support roles today than they were in the eighties. This year, the Northern route was dedicated to Michelle Long who rode with NVAR for several years. Michelle was a Helicopter Crash Rescue Medic, “until the load finally became too heavy to bear.” Michelle’s friends from Nebraska believe she suffered from PTSD as a result of what she saw as a medic. I wish I could have met Michelle! I know she is missed.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is usually associated with the trauma of war. Women veterans often experience the same symptoms, but often for a very different reason than their brothers. Nearly a third of female veterans report episodes of sexual assault during military service, while 71 to 90 percent report experiences of sexual harassment. In order to receive Veteran’s benefits for PTSD, Vets must complete extensive documentation. If you are a combat Veteran, the task, though tough, is easier to prove than a sexual assault or harassment experienced by a woman veteran.

I wanted to ride with NVAR to Freedom Rock near Des Moines, Iowa on Sunday. When I met the riders for breakfast Sunday morning, I was honored that I was asked to ride in the Mission Man position. It saddened me to explain that I needed to turn back around. I had to be back to work Tuesday morning. I knew I was heading back into some very strong headwinds and I was tired. I never sleep well in motels, and I didn’t want to add the extra distance from Iowa to my journey. So, with great regret, I left my new friends and headed back to Colorado.

My ride back to southern Colorado took me to the center of the United States which is one mile north-west of Lebanon, KS, the George Washington Carver memorial near Ness, Kansas, and Granada, Colorado. I located the graves of my great grandfather and grandmother, and my great uncle and aunt, at the Granada Cemetery.

I hope to ride all the way to the Wall from Cheyenne with NVAR next year, and provided I can save enough vacation time and money, I will ride all the way from coast-to-coast with them at some point in the future.

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