by MICHAELA GAFFKE
“Woo-hoo! Yeah!” cheered Group 2 as they pumped their fists into the air. They parked their cycles and headed over to the lunch table, joining Group 1. The third group, Delta, would be coming shortly after. They were on their lunch stop on August 8 at the Wilson Township Fire Station.
These cyclists are injured veterans, active military, first responders or public supporters who are participating in the Great Lakes Challenge of the UnitedHealthcare Challenge Series through Project Hero. Great Lakes Challenge participants ride from Minnetonka, Minn., to Evanston, Ill., totaling 509 miles, from August 7-14, according to Peter Bylsma, Project Hero’s director of marketing communications.
Project Hero was founded in 2008, as a national nonprofit organization striving to help veterans, active military and first responders who are affected by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and other physical injuries achieve recovery, resilience and rehabilitation. The organization also works to increase awareness of PTSD, TBI and mental health.
Participants of Project Hero have reported higher rates of recovery, improvement in their sleep habits and overall improvement in their daily lives. Some participants have even eliminated prescription drugs or decreased use by as much as 65 percent.
Along with these challenge and honor rides, Project Hero does community and research programs, according to Bylsma. Project Hero builds and donates adaptive bikes as well.
This year 97 riders in three groups participated. The youngest rider was an 18-year-old, and the oldest riders were Vietnam veterans, according to Bylsma. A support staff of 30 people rode in vehicles with the cyclists.
Cyclist Jonathan Dade matched other riders wearing red, white, and blue skin-tight biking gear. Dade was in the United States Navy until 2009. After a few years of struggling, his friend convinced him to complete a one-day ride through Project Hero. He participated in the Washington, D.C., Honor Ride in 2011.
“I had started gaining weight, and turned into myself,” Dade said. He has a scar on the top of his head from an injury, and developed sciatica, causing pain in his lower back, hips, and legs.
Dade hopped on a bike for the first time since elementary school to participate in the Honor Ride, and decided to try a whole-week challenge the following year.
“I trained, I bought my own bike,” he said. “When you get anxious and have stressors, you don’t want to be around people and make eye contact. I’ve been able to overcome that and not need to use any of the medications my doctor recommended me. I try to ride every year.”
He finished a mile behind the main group during his first ride, but that inspired him. Dade kept telling himself not to stop, and to push himself.
“It is called the 'road to recovery,' and I made it exactly that,” Dade said.
One year Dade didn’t ride, and that year was one of the toughest since he came out of the military. His brother passed away the previous year, and he was struggling. Dade told himself he could not skip another ride.
“People with PTSD, back issues, people fitted with special bikes because they are missing a limb, they are all doing this,” Dade said. “It is a huge testimony for what we are able to do. You don’t feel so down on yourself.”
Velette Britt is an Air Force veteran from Colorado Springs. She uses a wheel chair, and to participate in the challenge, she uses a hand cycle.
Britt got involved with Project Hero when she saw how much the organization helped one of her friends who has PTSD. Now, she has been riding for a year.
“This is my longest challenge so far,” she said. “And I’ve never been to this area before.”
She had finished her lunch break, and was ready to get back on the road.
As the first group was rounding up their cycles, the Winona County Sheriff Department was getting ready to escort them out.
Retired Winona County sheriff Dave Brand was there helping escort and stop traffic while the cyclists headed toward Houston County. The sheriff’s department passed them off to Houston County law enforcement from there.
Brand has served in the Army himself. “There are veterans who are not here who gave their lives for this country,” he said, “When I was sheriff, and even the sheriff now, Ron Ganrude, is very positive on helping people like this ... it is a very positive thing.”
“We are very much indebted to the excellent support from the local police agents,” Bylsma said.
“Without sounding too cliché and not to make it sound like an advertisement,” Dade said, “it becomes part of your life. Really anything becomes part of your life — addiction, medication — and this is beneficial and therapeutic with no bad side effects.”
To learn how to get involved as either a veteran, active member, first responder or community member, go to projecthero.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.