Imagine pedaling a bicycle for nearly a month, traveling almost 4,000 miles during the peak of summer through every possible landscape, including deserts and mountain passes — while disabled. Sound difficult?
Not to hundreds of injured war veterans who fought enemy combatants in the Middle East and will be participating in a grueling cycling quest from San Francisco to Virginia that begins Saturday.
In fact, these heroes aren’t calling their cycling odyssey — which begins on the Golden Gate Bridge and ends in Virginia Beach, Va., on July 24 — a hell ride. They’re calling it something much tamer: Sea to Shining Sea.
Indeed, these war heroes — some who lost limbs, others who suffered brain damage — are not only happy to be on home soil but ecstatic to be alive and unwilling to let their injuries slow them down.
In 63 days, they will have only 11 days to rest. On five days, they will cycle more than 100 miles at a time. Their longest trip is 120 miles through southeast Nevada, where temperatures can exceed triple digits.
Several riders will have specifically designed bikes that make it possible for them to participate. Some will cycle using their hands.
The 19 men and two women representing all military branches on the cycling adventure are “dramatic proof that disabled Americans can lead productive lives and accomplish feats most people only dream about,” organizers said.
An understatement for certain.
After hearing about their trip, The Examiner interviewed five heroes in order to share their amazing tales of survival with our readers. Prepare to be inspired.
Resides: Vail, Ariz.
Formerly stationed: USMC — Iraq, 2004, 2006
Battle injuries include: Three brain injuries, leg injuries, latest in 2006
Cause of injuries: Mine blast, IED blast in Iraq
Sea to Shining Sea vehicle: Bicycle
Joshua Davis said he is cycling 4,000 miles in a month partly as a tribute to his friends on the battlefield — but he added that he’s also taking on the feat to show his enemies that they can’t keep him down.
The Marine — who was injured three separate times in battle before being permanently forced off the fighting fields — has an uncanny ability to return to health following debilitating wounds.
Two weeks after being deployed in 2004, the 25-year-old gunner said he was injured when the Hummer he was riding in rolled over. A month later, he barely survived a mine blast.
The two incidents resulted in brain injuries, and also “smashed my legs really good, cracking my right shin,” Davis said.
Davis wouldn’t let those injuries keep him off the battlefield — he recovered and was deployed again in February 2006.
Five months after being deployed, Davis received another severe brain injury when an IED blasted the Hummer he was riding in.
“It left me unconscious for quite a while,” he said. “That one was too much for my brain. I couldn’t open my eyes without fainting.”
The military decided to retire Davis after that, which “was aggravating,” he said.
But then at the hospital, Davis was inspired by an Ironman triathlete to try cycling, “and I basically fell in love with it,” he said.
He said he was embarrassed on a bike at first because the brain damage he suffered caused him to lose balance often.
“I didn’t like going out in public and falling in front of people I don’t know,” he said.
He said training on the bike has helped him regain his balance. The exercise has also helped him sleep at night, which had been difficult due to post-trauma stress and the brain injuries, he said.
After cycling for only a year, he said he is ready to take on the Sea to Shining Sea. He said he cycled 400 miles in four days last fall.
“If you succeed after an injury in anything, you’re taking the power away from the injury,” Davis said. “You’re taking the power away from the enemy.”
Nicolette ‘Nico’ Maroulis
Resides: Austin, Texas
Formerly stationed: NAS Kingsville, Texas
Battle injuries include: Brain damage, back and pelvis injuries, nerve damage in leg
Cause of injuries: An incident that took place while serving as a Navy K9 handler in 2003
Sea to Shining Sea vehicle: Hand cycle
Only few people know what happened in Iraq to Nicolette Maroulis.
The former K-9 handler in the Navy said she chooses not to talk about the event in 2003 that led to her injuries, which included brain trauma that continues to affect her equilibrium (a reason she can’t use an upright bicycle), pelvis and back injuries and nerve damage in her leg.
Maroulis, who joined the military “out of anger and helplessness” over the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, said she doesn’t want to be defined by her wounds or what caused them.
“I want people to know me for who I am,” she said. “I don’t want to identify myself through my injuries. A lot of people are amputees and severely burned. They, in a lot of ways, don’t have that option.”
Maroulis is more comfortable talking about her victories while she was being treated in the hospital, when she battled through various post traumatic emotions and was told by doctors she’d never walk again.
She’s more comfortable recalling how she was able to prove her doctors wrong.
After many surgeries and physical therapy sessions, Maroulis — who was confined to a wheelchair for more than three years — said she can now walk, though sometimes she has to use a cane. She was partly able to achieve that goal by studying kinesiology, which let her “really understand my body a whole let better.”
“By the time I was in physical therapy, I was ready,” she said. “I said, ‘Let’s make this happen.’”
She agreed to embark on the 4,000-mile cycling trip on only two months notice.
“I had a lot of reservations [at first],” she said.
But the consummate fighter changed her tune in a short time.
“I have no doubt at all that I’ll finish,” Maroulis said. “I’m going to take it one pedal at a time.”
Formerly stationed: Hill AFB in Ogden, Utah
Battle injuries include: Right leg amputated below knee
Cause of injuries: IED detonated beneath his vehicle, 2008
Sea to Shining Sea vehicle: Bicycle
Unlike most soldiers, bomb expert Christopher Frost said, he was well-prepared for what might happen if he was severely wounded in Iraq.
“Disarming bombs, I was probably more prepared than a normal military member going into it,” Frost said. “You almost expect something to happen to you or someone close to you.”
Two years ago, the former Bay Area resident was en route to investigate the site of an IED attack when one of the homemade bombs ignited under the Hummer he was riding in, killing a fellow soldier in the vehicle and injuring two others.
Frost’s right leg had to be amputated below the knee. He also endured multiple surgeries on his left leg.
The Pentagon awarded him the Warrior of the Week award in 2008. It’s no surprise Frost received such an honor. After waking up from anesthesia in the hospital, an ops officer wanted to know when Frost planned to run a marathon.
“And I said, ‘Give me a year,’” Frost said.
Last November, his doctor told him that despite his prosthetic, the latest surgery on his left ankle meant that he could not run and must be cautious when he walks.
“And I said, ‘What am I going to do?’” said Frost, who has always been active. “The doctor said cycling is OK.”
But that doctor certainly didn’t mean that Frost should bike 4,000 miles in one month.
“Hey, [they] put the idea in my head,” Frost joked.
Excited to return to the Bay Area on Saturday and start on the Golden Gate Bridge, Frost said he’s going to tackle Sea to Shining Sea “the old-fashioned way, one mile at a time.”
“If we can get people to focus on what we can do, but not what we can’t do anymore, that will make the whole trip worthwhile,” Frost said.
Resides: Cameron, N.C.
Currently stationed: Pope Air Force Base, N.C.
Battle injuries include: Shattered lower legs, moderate traumatic brain injury
Cause of injuries: IED blast on Hummer in Afghanistan battle
Sea to Shining Sea vehicle: Bicycle
Sgt. Marc Esposito calls himself “blessed” — but extraordinary might be the more accurate description.
Less than a year after a bomb blast in Afghanistan gave him a traumatic brain injury and “crushed, destroyed or broke” everything below his knees, Esposito continues serving his country as an Air Force combat controller — and he has no hesitation in biking 4,000 miles across the country.
Esposito survived an IED blast during battle that shredded the Hummer in which he was riding.
“I was catapulted in the air,” he said. “I was knocked [unconscious], which was a good thing because I didn’t have to feel anything. A special ops found me on fire, not breathing and with no heartbeat.”
The quick action of the well-trained special-forces soldier kept him alive, Esposito said.
“I was pretty blessed,” he said. “It’s still to me something that if I could have gone back and changed anything, I would have still been in there doing the same job.”
Esposito, who loves his work, said he doesn’t need people to thank him for his service to the country, because “the best thanks is to see people walking around without fear of terrorism.”
After he was injured, Esposito said he wouldn’t accept doctors’ warnings that he might not be able to walk, jog or run again. He set out to prove them wrong, amazing them during a speedy recovery that led to several gold medals in the recent Warrior Games held for injured veterans.
Doctors said his excellent physical fitness at the time he was wounded helped him survive. Esposito said Sea to Shining Sea is another way in which he can help inspire other wounded soldiers.
“In most things, the majority of it is mental,” he said. “Your body can truly go farther than you expect.”
Resides: Enterprise, Ala.
Formerly stationed: Fort Rucker, Ala., home of Army Aviation
Battle injuries include: Spinal cord injury, facial fractures, hemorrhaging
Cause of injuries: Plane crash
Sea to Shining Sea vehicle: Bicycle
Stuart Contant admits he’s not an athlete — at least not like the other veterans set to complete the Sea to Shining Sea cycling quest.
“The longest I’ve ridden is 20 miles,” he said.
When Contant signed up for the monthlong, 4,000-mile trip across the country, he said he didn’t know the distance he was committing to.
“I didn’t really read all the way into it, how long it was ... until I was sent more information,” Contant said.
But if there is anyone who knows about fighting through incredible pain and adversity, it’s Contant. The ace Army pilot — who first enlisted in 1984 and flew the lead aircraft during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2002 — dealt with extreme pain and suffering after his plane crashed in a subsequent mission.
The pilot sustained injuries from head to toe, including widespread hemorrhaging, a spinal cord injury and the fracturing of the left side of his face “from eye to chin and jaw,” Contant said.
“I shouldn’t be able to walk,” he said. “[For] some reason I’m still here.”
Contant’s brother, Bale, recalled the suffering his sibling went through.
“Tears your heart out to watch your little brother do such baby steps to try to move his toes and legs,” Bale said.
But Contant prevailed, emerging from multiple surgeries and excruciating physical-therapy sessions to the point where he was able to fly for the military again.
“I tell [the Army] I fooled them,” Contant said.
So while it might seem like 4,000 miles of cycling for a nonathlete is a feat too daunting, Contant views the challenge as another way to fool his perceived limitations.
“I’m assuming the first two weeks are going to be painful,” he said. “And then after that, I’m going to go numb and it’s not going to bother me anymore.”
Veterans by the numbers
21: Wounded veterans taking park in the Sea to Shining Sea bicycle ride
63: Duration in days of Sea to Shining Sea
4,000: Distance in miles Sea to Shining Sea covers from San Francisco to Virginia Beach, Va.
4,388: American military members killed in Iraq between Oct. 7, 2001, and May 8, 2010
1,052: American military members killed in Afghanistan between Oct. 7, 2001, and May 8, 2010
5,831: American military members wounded in action in Afghanistan between Oct. 7, 2001, and May 8, 2010
31,810: American military members wounded in action in Iraq between Oct. 7, 2001 and May 8, 2010
1.9 million: Veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as of last year since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Source: Sea to Shining Sea, United States Department of Defense