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Riding for Veterans — and Themselves PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 05 June 2014 04:41


Tracy Draper (fourth from left) and her cycling team gaze eastward, the direction they will be riding the next 35 days to raise money for veterans. Photo credit: Mike Terry

The plight of the post 9/11 military veteran returning home from wars in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan is well reported. Images of men and women with artificial arms and/or legs, trying to find jobs, broken families, being homeless and battling mental dysfunction like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are constant reminders of the high price veterans often pay for their service.

It has also been documented how often these veterans cannot seem to get attention and services they need to aid their recovery, at least from the government. Former Veterans Administration Director Eric Shinseki recently resigned after coming under fire from allegations that 40 veterans possibly died waiting for care at a Phoenix VA hospital in Phoenix, AZ, and an Inspector General’s report of multiple VA medical facilities that “inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic.”

It is those kinds of stories that are inspiring people like Tracy Draper to try and help.

On Wednesday, June 4, Draper and her team of five men and two women left Topanga Beach at dawn to ride 3,000 miles on bicycles back to their home in Florida. They plan to spend the next 35 days (including four days to rest) averaging at least 100 miles a day through California, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia until they finally reach their finish line in Amelia Island, Fl., on July 8.

The cross-country ride started out as a personal goal for Draper. But now it is also to raise money and awareness for Hope For The Warriors, a national nonprofit group which aids post 9/11 veterans and their families through various programs including career transition and education, health and wellness clinics, family wellness and reintegration. It was formed in 2006 in North Carolina by a group of military wives, and now has offices in New York, Washington, D.C., Virginia and Florida along with representatives in California, Texas, Illinois and Wyoming.

The team’s fundraising goal is $35,000.

“We want to raise money and awareness for the post 9/11 veterans who have been injured — psychologically or physically,” Draper said. “They come home from the wars, and maybe their kids or wife are afraid to hug them because dad’s arm is missing. There are a lot of unmet needs that the government… can’t, for whatever reason, meet the needs.

“I found I liked how financially transparent Hope For The Warriors is; they give almost 90 percent of the money they take in to their 11 programs. I know if I’m going to put my name behind something, I have to believe in it.”

She met her teammates — in alphabetical order, Bill Bellew, Ed Bennett, Ruth D’Auito, Marion Kusters, Scott Manning, and Scott Sherrick — through ride-a-longs with various cycle clubs in Florida. Every team member has contributed $3,000 of their own for the group kitty, to help pay for food and lodging, and have some left over to donate. All are experienced long-distance riders; some have trained nearly a year for the trip.

None of them are kids. The group’s collective average age is 48.

They all believe in the goal to raise money and support needy veterans. Kusters took a sixweek leave of absence from her job as an outpatient surgical nurse to participate. My “company does a lot of charities, but not individual charities like this,” she said.

Draper’s Dream

A physical trainer as well as a mother of four adult and teenage children (including one son currently enrolled in the U.S. Air Force Academy), Draper bought her first road bike back in 2006. A conversation with the salesperson that day planted the seed that would eventually blossom into the desire for the road trip.

“The salesperson had told me a story of how she rode across the country at age 58 — and she was not even a cyclist,” Draper said. “Her son had cancer, and she decided to ride cross-country for the Lance Armstrong foundation. She said ‘Tracy, if I can do it anyone can do it.’ And I took her seriously.

“With that statement, I thought ‘I’m gonna do this one day.’”

She told her husband Bill Draper of her dream. He told her she was nuts.

But cycling eventually became more than just a method of exercise.

“In the beginning a 20-mile bike ride was a long day for me,” Draper said. “I started getting serious about cycling in 2010; I had a ruptured disc in my back that took me out of running and a triathlon, so I thought I could ride a bike. I got involved in a local club to get more experience about riding.”

Another pendulum swing: In 2012, Bill got a Mustang car he always wanted. Getting the car made him think about why he was opposed to Draper taking the road trip.

“He said if he could have his dream car, he could not keep his wife from having her dream,” Draper said.

As she began visiting and riding with a other clubs, Draper connected several people beyond just a weekly gathering of cycle enthusiasts. When she told them of her dream, they agreed to join in.

“When I had the idea of doing this ride I didn’t want to do it by myself,” Draper said. “Why not invite some friends I knew who were strong, that are good to get along with and I’d want to spend time with, that are caring, good people. So this is a hand-chosen team.”

Embracing The Adventure

Kusters said she grew up with bikes back in the Netherlands. “But to be biking at this level is new, using the bike for sport as opposed to transportation and utility,” she said.

She said she has been training for the trip since last September, and that her job has given her six weeks off to complete the trip. But she still smiles at the thought of agreeing to take part.

“The first impression I had was ‘that’s crazy.’ And right behind that was ‘I want to do it,”’ she said. “I was excited. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and imagined I had to be retired to do it.”

She admits to having some concerns — The amount of climbing in the Rockies, the heat going through the desert. The main goal is to stay healthy “emotionally, physically and psychologically.”

But this is also the opportunity to visit places in the U.S. that Kusters said she might not otherwise visit.

“I want to see the country in a way nobody else sees it,” she said. “Meet many different people and have interaction with them. And grow from the interaction; basically be a better person when I finish.”

Bellew, who served in the Army Special Forces, is retired but an avid long-distance cyclist, often riding six days a week. He wasn’t part of the original group but was added when another team member dropped out.

“[Draper] contacted me about six weeks ago,” Bellew said. “She said ‘I know you’re in good shape, and one of guys dropped out. Do you think you can get ready in time, do you want to do it?’ I took a week to think about it.

“In the group of people I know, this is (type of trip) not unheard of. I know several people who have done it over the years. A lot of people have this on their list of things they want to do some day. I have not done anything like this. I’ve done 100-mile days, but never 30 in a row. That’s the real challenge of this.”

The Planning

When you decide to bike across the country, you don’t just take a week’s worth of spin cycle classes and head off. Draper spent nearly two years figuring out the route, trying to raise additional support money, decide on a charity, find lodging and, of course, compile the team.

Although she has gotten donations from local businesses, Draper is a bit disappointed at being unable to land large corporation support. But that became part of the learning process of putting the trip together.

“We’re almost too small for corporate help,” she said. “They do huge sponsorships, not $5,000 here and there.”

Still, there is support coming from unexpected sources. There have been schools, churches, and community centers in various towns that will provide a night’s lodging free of charge. When they go through Kansas, Kristey Williams, the mayor of Augusta, KS, has offered to host a dinner party for the team. And in Mt. Vernon, MO, they will be saluted during the city’s “Red White and Boom” fireworks show on June 27. Mt. Vernon had a large VA assistedliving facility, and Draper said she was told the team would have the opportunity to meet veterans who stay there.

That kind of response has touched Draper.

“It has excited me about, for lack of a better term, grassroots people in our country,” she said “The smallest towns seem to be the ones most excited to see us. They plan to have people along the side of the road cheering us on. Not that we need fan clubs; the fact they are excited, that’s pretty cool to me.”

They will probably need that kind of encouragement to help them through. Draper admits traveling 3,000 miles by bicycle in 35 days “is a challenging goal; but we have to stick to it. The attitude is we have to start ‘here’ and end ‘here.’ No matter how long it takes us that day to get to our scheduled stop, we have to get there.”

If you would like to donate to Draper’s team, visit their website at www.RideacrossUSA. com, where you can also follow their their journey. If you would like to donate to Hope For The Warriors, visit their website at www.HopeForTheWarriors.org.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 05 June 2014 05:02