NEWS

Veterans overcome injuries, hit the road as athletes

PAT FRIDGEN
Sea to Shining Sea athletes posed with members of Greencastle VFW Post 6319, American Legion Post 373, Rep.Todd Rock, and local State Farm agents Ted Mercado and Fran Kenawell.

A band of cyclists pedaled into Greencastle Sunday morning, took an early lunch break on Center Square, then headed east on Baltimore Street. The 17 riders, ranging in age from 22 to 69, were not an ordinary touring group. They were the participants in Sea to Shining Sea, a 4,000 mile trek from San Francisco to Virginia Beach in 63 days. They were veterans, many injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, out to prove to themselves and the public what can be done despite disabilities.

The ride, organized by World T.E.A.M. Sports to demonstrate the strength of the American spirit, succeeded for both the cyclists and the people who turned out to welcome them.

The riders

Last July Marc Esposito, 26, an Air Force staff sergeant, was in the hospital with burns and a back brace, moving about in a wheel chair. Both legs had been broken below the knee when the special operations soldier encountered an IED in Afghanistan. The doctors did not think he would walk again.

"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said, "but I have no regrets. I love my job."

With medical care and determination, Esposito regained his mobility. Though not able to run yet, he found cycling the perfect therapy. He joined the team to encourage soldiers who will sustain injuries in the future, and all Americans who suddenly find themselves disabled.

"A disability is not what anyone in their 20s expects," he said. "I can overcome my problems. Some of the people with me had much more severe injuries, but they don't let anything get them down. They have great attitudes. If we can get one or two guys out of bed by what we do, it's worth it."

The cross-country canvass exposed him to the country's broad landscape. He enjoyed the Continental Divide on the west coast, and Route 50, 'the loneliest highway in America,' was beautiful. But the people impressed him the most.

"It's been awesome seeing the patriotism. This is the America we fought for."

The Ohio native also met up with family and friends at the Pittsburgh stop. He plans to stay in the Air Force as long as possible, maybe counseling recruits interested in his specialized field of work.

Nicolette Maroulis, 33, medically retired Navy from Austin, Texas, was excited to be able to ride a bike upright as a result of the trip. She was, however, doing the journey with a hand cycle, since her balance wasn't yet what it needed to be. Intentionally not disclosing her overseas assignments, she said she suffered a traumatic brain injury, spinal damage and nerve injuries from shrapnel, and deals with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a 2007 event, six years into the service.

Her return home was not pleasant.

"It was hard to come back and talk to people who complained about things, like their Starbucks coffee wasn't good, when my friends were coming home in body bags. This ride has changed my view."

Maroulis referenced the response from the residents in each town they passed, especially children waving flags and veterans attending their short stops. She appreciated flags flying on the streets.

"It's been eye-opening and renews my faith in the average American," she said. "They get it. This is it. These are the people soldiers are fighting for."

Because her husband is active duty and deployed, the timing was good for her to get away too. "This way I don't miss him so much. I feel pretty good. I'm fortunate."

The watchers

State Farm sponsored the bike ride, with agents in communities along the way providing rest stops and other assistance. Fran Kenawell and Ted Mercado were pleased with the response of their employees and local merchants, who provided food for the Sea to Shining Sea team, as well as for visitors.

"This is pretty exciting," said Kenawell. "It's amazing what these guys are doing. I've talked to several and they all have a different story."

"This is a way to say thank you to all the men and women in uniform," Mercado said. "I'm happy they were able to come to town and give Greencastle a chance to say hello."

Melissa McKinley, public relations specialist for State Farm, and an Illinois resident, is accompanying the riders the entire trip. She spent one day on a tandem bike to share a part of the experience.

"It's changed my perspective on life," she said. "It's staggering to see them keep going with a smile, though some are paralyzed or have missing limbs. They've proven they and all disabled Americans can do anything."

She witnessed changes in the riders, noting some were walking better and had gained strength since the May 22 departure. They were all pedaling faster.

Austin Smithard, 42, a British citizen living in the United States, also tagged along, shooting film footage for a documentary of the trip. He is shopping it to National Geographic. "I decided to ride along, like an idiot, having never ridden a bicycle before," he said.

Rosalie Hykes and her daughter Darlene Higgins watched from lawn chairs across the street from the picnic area. They had family members serve in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. "We're here to show our support. War has hit our family pretty hard."

Dave and Diane Ganoe observed from their pickup. "My grandson is in the Marines," Diane said. "I thought it would be nice to show up. He appreciates when civilians approach him and thank him."

Merri Tabor came with her son Preston, 17, and other members of Boy Scout Troop 287. "We want to show our support," she said.

Ethan Koons was recruited by the scouts to play a bugle as the riders passed by. He played the Assembly Call and Mess Call.

The trip ends Saturday. The final days may be followed at s2ssbikeride.org

Mark Esposito suffered a broken back, two broken legs and burns while in Afghanistan last summer. His personal motto taken from military training, “Exceeding the standard is the standard”, helped him in the recovery process.