‘Wounded warriors’ ride from Sea to Shining Sea | PostIndependent.com

‘Wounded warriors’ ride from Sea to Shining Sea

Trina Ortega
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

Trina Ortega Special to the Post IndependentJohn Malkin of Illinois, left, and Mike Sanders of Alaska arrive Monday in Glenwood Springs, and show that their Sea to Shining Sea bike ride across America is about more than just miles in the saddle. The camaraderie and connection to other veterans and active service men and women are equally as important.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – As wounded, injured or ill veterans, the 14 participants in the Sea to Shining Sea bicycle tour, which reached Glenwood Springs on Monday, have experienced their share of trauma and triumphs.

But these days, they are most inspired by the fellow vets and active servicemen and women who are supporting one another as they pedal 3,698 miles across the United States.

Sea to Shining Sea is a two-month ride organized by World TEAM Sports. It began on Memorial Day, May 28, in San Francisco and will cross 14 states before ending in Virginia Beach, Va.

The cyclists stayed Monday night at the Courtyard Marriott in Glenwood Springs and enjoyed a spaghetti dinner, rides and a cave tour at the Glenwood Caverns and Adventure Park. They departed Tuesday morning, headed to Vail.

Andrew Jansen, 28, is among the 14 “wounded warriors.” He described the trip as amazing. Among the inspiring moments was when one of the team members, a cancer survivor riding a recumbent bicycle, pulled a Vietnam vet amputee up a hill.

“I can’t use words to describe how poignant it was. I started to cry underneath my sunglasses riding right behind them. Because it was such a hard hill, and you could see that Bill was about to give up, and Mike goes, ‘No, brother, we got this,'” recalled Jansen.

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Jansen himself sustained physical and emotional injuries in 2005 after falling out of a large military truck while on duty during Hurricane Katrina. He also has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the number of suicides and other issues he dealt with as an Air Force cop.

“Some of these guys are blind, paraplegic, recovering from cancer. It’s an honor to be part of such a group of people who can remain positive even in the face of adversity,” Jansen added.

As a counselor at a veterans center in Illinois, Jansen also views the trip as a chance to help other veterans – both on the ride and in the host towns – get medical, psychological and social support. On the group’s rest days, he hands out information and volunteers in soup kitchens, reaching out to homeless and unemployed veterans, among others.

Finding new meaning in life

John Malkin, who served with the Navy Seabees for eight years, agrees that the ride offers a unique opportunity to help other veterans suffering from injuries and illness find meaning in their lives again.

“There were several on this team who, before this trip, were couch potatoes staying in their house all the time, hardly ever getting out socializing. And so now they’re seeing the world as a whole different thing.

“They’re seeing that people out there are on their side. In general, the far majority of Americans are supportive and good-hearted,” he said, while chowing down on pizza after Monday’s ride from Meeker.

Malkin, 42, sustained traumatic brain injury when he was struck by lightning during training in the Navy. As a result, he has amnesia, narcolepsy and has struggled with mental health issues, migraines and incredibly painful cluster headaches during recovery.

His goal is to bring awareness to the unseen injuries, such as traumatic brain injury. In his case, he can hold memories for only about 24 hours.

“A highlight of this trip is just the family that’s developed. The sad part is I will forget them all,” Malkin said matter-of-factly. But he’ll reconnect on Facebook or via phone texting, and the follow-up will trigger his memory. And the other men and women on the ride will fully understand.

“You come on [this bicycle tour] and you can be yourself with your strengths and limitations,” Malkin said. “We don’t razz anybody if you’re having a bad day. On the days that somebody can lift you up, they’re going to be there and lift you up.”

Trading ‘disability’ for ‘adaptive ability’

Mike Sanders, 49, of Eagle River, Alaska, is one of those guys who has done his share of lifting. A devout Christian, he also sees it as his calling.

“I read in the scriptures that you will endure suffering, and the reason you’re going to endure that suffering is so that you can comfort someone else that suffers as you did,” said Sanders, a senior master sergeant with the Air Force who will retire in September after 23 years of service.

He was diagnosed in 2006 with stage IV throat cancer, went through treatment, beat the odds and has been cancer-free for four years.

Sanders isn’t afraid to approach people on the street and share his story about overcoming adversity and facing mortality, and talk about his religious faith. He also is not shy about discussing the stigmas associated with the word “disabled.”

“Maybe disabled isn’t the right word. Maybe we have ‘adaptive ability.’ And if that’s the case, maybe we’re just as normal as anybody else,” he said.

“I think one of the hardest parts is when somebody gets termed as a ‘disabled vet.’ Negative connotations come with that, so we want to change that. As we go out on this ride, we want to encourage and inspire and show that you don’t have to feel that way,” Sanders said.

Larry Gunter, 49, who served as a crew chief in the Air Force for 10 years, is an example of how one can adapt with a physiological disability. Blind since age 31, Gunter skied for the first time in March, competed in a biathlon in winter and intends to try mountain climbing.

While cycling, he uses a pilot to steer the tandem. It requires a lot of trust, he said, but the freedom and speed that come with riding are priceless. Zipping down from Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada, he and pilot Greg Hoffman hit 62 miles per hour.

Gunter said the best part, however, is motivating others.

“I’m looking forward to completing the challenge and just showing other people with disabilities that you can find an activity that you like,” Gunter said. “It doesn’t have to be cycling. It could be any activity that you can participate in. Just get involved and participate.”