8/21/2012 - OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- There are many ways to raise awareness and money for veterans needs, but how about a 4,200 mile cycling trip across the U.S.?
That's exactly what five U.S. veterans started doing July 15 as part of the Long Road Home Project.
This group will be crossing the Midwest later this month and Team Offutt is holding a special welcome ceremony and cookout for them at the Base Lake at noon on Aug. 30.
"We are looking forward to it," said Casey Miller, Long Road Home Project executive director.
The idea of taking a group of veterans across the country came to Miller last year after he completed the journey himself.
"It was incredibly powerful and healing," he said. "I wanted to share that feeling with others and so I thought to myself what group of people could benefit the most from such a trip and immediately our military veterans came to my mind."
At that point Miller started planning the Long Road Home Project. He wanted to gather a diverse group of veterans that not only wanted to spread the word on veteran's issues, but were also in need of healing themselves.
"I had envisioned a group of veterans from diverse backgrounds that could come together and really benefit from such a cause," he said.
The group of five former service people includes men and women of diverse ages, backgrounds and interests all sharing one common goal - heal their war wounds and raise awareness and money to help veterans live more fulfilling and meaningful lives.
"Pain doesn't discriminate and neither does the Long Road Home Project," Miller said. "We have veterans from ages 28 through 60 with us and we're becoming a family."
The group includes former Soldiers Ryan Creel and Glenn Fretz, and former Airmen Colleen Bushnell, Steve Taylor and Marie Tracy.
So far the journey has been challenging at times for the riders for a variety of reasons, but it also has been a healing experience for some of them as well.
"There have been a lot of adjustments on this trip for me," said Bushnell, who suffers from PTSD. "One of my biggest challenges has been to interact with people on a daily basis, but I am doing better with it. I am enjoying myself and this is well worth it."
"We're very much becoming a team," said Fretz, who is paralyzed. "Because of my disability, the others have helped me going up hills and have added a push bar to my hand cycle. They're always there to give me a boost, just like a family."
Even with proper training for such a journey, the trek has proved challenging for most of the riders.
"I'm lucky because of my endurance, as I've trained for this, but still, we get very tired," said Creel, who suffers from PTSD. "We have people on the team that are great athletes and then we have some folks who are very determined and very dedicated."
During the cross country trip any money raised by the Long Road Home Project will be going to Operation First Response. This organization supports wounded veterans and their families with personal and financial needs.
"A lot of the larger organizations thought we were too small to really make a difference, so I went ahead and did some research on credible non-profits with gold star ratings and I came upon Operation First Response," Miller said. "We chose them because they serve all ranks and don't discriminate. They really help veterans bridge the gap between when they start a claim with the VA until the time it is processed."
The team will cross into Nebraska Aug. 29 and after staying overnight in Omaha, they will make the trek south to base along with riders from the Bellevue Bicycle Club and the STRATCOM Cycling Team.
"The Bellevue Bicycle Club has a number of military related members and it's natural for the club to support a bike-related military event with an important stop at Offutt," said Rita Sanders, who is the mayor of Bellevue and member of the bike club. "The club is more than excited to support the Long Home Road Project and the riders and we hope that the warmth and encouragement they receive here is remembered long after the successful completion of their journey."
Once at the Base Lake the team will be officially welcomed by the 55th Wing commander and then a cookout, sponsored by the Offutt Advisory Council, will take place, which is open to all members of Team Offutt.
"The Offutt Advisory Council heard about the Long Road Home Project and took about two seconds to decide to support it financially," said Rick Sanders, OAC member and Bellevue Bicycle Club president.
Following the cookout, the group will receive a tour of the base to include the new Fallen Warrior Memorial and U.S. Strategic Command and then stay overnight before continuing on their journey across the country.
"We've had some great receptions so far," Miller said, "and we're looking forward to what's ahead for us."