They knew it would be hard. They even likened it to a mini-deployment. But what these fired-up veterans didn’t expect was that their cross-country bike ride would involve so much injury — and would still be so rejuvenating.
Back in February, three war veterans — Jeremy Staat, 35, Wesley Barrientos, 27, and Dale Porter, 65 — set out to traverse the United States by bicycle in 100 days. Their goal was to make it from the Wall of Valor in Bakersfield, Calif., to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., by Memorial Day weekend.
Along the way, they wanted to stop and speak to veterans, students and community groups about issues that alarm them, including disturbing veteran suicide rates and the challenges many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face accessing their health and education benefits once they return home.Story: Pedaling hope: War veterans plan 4,163-mile bike ride
The veterans accomplished much of what they set out to do, and on Monday, Staat and Barrientos will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Wall in D.C. with President Barack Obama. But not everything about their journey went according to plan:
- On day five of the ride, Porter — a Vietnam veteran from Bakersfield — crashed hard on his bike and separated his shoulder so severely that he couldn’t go on.
- Barrientos, a double amputee who lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq, experienced a rough spill while riding his hand-cranked bicycle in New Mexico near the Texas state line. The accident left him with a dislocated shoulder, a possible concussion and road rash over the left side of his body. After taking some time to rest, he kept going.
- Just outside Memphis, Barrientos rode his bike over an unexpected bump. This time, he injured his shoulder so badly that he couldn’t keep riding. Nevertheless, he stayed on with the crew of the Wall to Wall Cross Country Bicycle Ride — just in a vehicle — and he continued speaking at dozens of events. He’s still waiting to find out whether he’ll need surgery.
“Yeah, we faced frustrations at times, but you know what I keep telling the team? At least we’re not getting shot at,” Barrientos said Thursday in a phone interview from Virginia. “It’s just not that bad.
“We had more than our share of successes. I have grown so much better as a person in every way. Emotionally and mentally, I still have some demons that I fight with every day. But being out there, speaking, doing something for someone else — it changes people for the better. If we’re able to save one life during this trip, all the pain and all the separation would be worth it.”
‘One suicide is too many’
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that a veteran dies by suicide every 80 minutes. That equals out to an annual death toll of about 6,500 — more than all the U.S. military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan since those conflicts began.
Staat and Barrientos talked again and again about these grim statistics at more than 100 speaking engagements along their bike route.
“We were trying to put things in perspective for people — that we lose more veterans here in America than we do in any combat zone due to suicide,” said Staat, a U.S. Marine veteran and retired NFL player who estimates that he will have ridden a total of about 3,400 miles by Memorial Day.
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“We really did see people wake up about it,” Staat said. “We’d ride for five or six hours, then jump off and speak at two or three events. We worked our butts off.”
The issue of military suicides matters to Barrientos on a deeply personal level. In 2005, during his second of three deployments to Iraq, one of his fellow soldiers took his own life there.
“That’s why that issue is so close to me,” Barrientos said. “It can be really hard to talk to family members sometimes, but it’s so much better to talk to them and try to make a difference in their lives.”
Across the country, Barrientos and Staat tried to encourage fellow veterans not to give up and to seek help if they’re struggling. They also criticized the VA Department, describing the agency as inefficient and ill-prepared to serve veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who need help.Video: Army suicide report highlights 'high-risk' behavior (on this page)
In statements and interviews with TODAY.com, VA officials acknowledged that they’re struggling to meet the needs of the nearly 1 million veterans who returned home in recent years and began using VA benefits or services. But they, too, stressed how hard they’ve been working to help veterans in crisis: beefing up mental-health services, offering a host of specialized treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance-abuse problems, and launching a suicide-prevention hotline that’s consistently in high demand.
In crisis? Call this number
That hotline — 1-800-273-TALK (8255), option “1” — has received more than 600,000 calls and has saved the lives of more than 20,000 veterans who were actively in the process of hurting themselves, said Janet Kemp, the VA’s national mental health program director for suicide prevention.
“We’ve sent out emergency support to people who … have taken pills or are holding guns,” Kemp told TODAY.com. “We’ve shut down train stations if someone told us they were standing at a train track. We’ve pulled people off of bridges. People will give you one last opportunity to make a difference, and if you’re there and if you grab that opportunity, lives are saved.”Story: Military women and suicide: Home safe but not sound
Kemp said that in thousands of less sensational but still critical situations, VA crisis line workers have been able to connect hurting veterans with treatment and support.
“If someone calls from Albuquerque, someone in that area will call them and connect with them, offer to meet them at a coffee shop or whatever’s comfortable for the veteran, to get them involved in treatment,” Kemp said.
Much like Barrientos and Staat, Kemp is motivated by a strong emotional pull and a sense of duty to do whatever can be done to prevent veterans from taking their own lives.
“Far too many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are dying by suicide,” she said. “One is too many. … It’s a tragedy, after you fought for your country and put your life in danger, to come home and take your own life.”
‘It meant the world’
Barrientos and Staat said they’ll never forget the veterans, school kids, college students and other supportive people they met during their epic cross-continental trek. Barrientos confessed that he was moved to tears when a Vietnam veteran living in a veterans’ home in Boulder City, Nev., cried and told them that their visit was the best thing that had happened to him in seven years.
“We’re just riding bikes — we’re nothing special, we’re nobodies — and he said that to us,” Barrientos said. “That was a very emotional day. It meant the world.”
At another veterans’ home, Staat and Barrientos met a World War II veteran who talked with them about the two years he spent as a prisoner of war in Germany. He weighed 200 pounds when he was captured — and less than 100 pounds when he was rescued.
The cycling veterans kept having goose-bump-inducing experiences in town after town. At one spot in Arkansas, dozens of children ran toward them, waving small flags and cheering.
“To see a whole bunch of elementary school kids saying ‘thank you’ and ‘God bless America’ as you ride by — it’s incredible,” Barrientos said.
One of the most moving moments of all happened when they visited Fort Campbell, Ky. — Barrientos’ duty station. The U.S. Army veteran hadn’t been to Fort Campbell since 2007, when he left for his third deployment to Iraq. During that deployment, he lost both his legs to a roadside explosion.
“We got to go to my battalion area to see my unit’s memorial,” Barrientos said. “It has a lot of names of guys killed in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
He said he was overcome when he saw the names of close friends who died in 2006, and he left a “killed in action” bracelet at the memorial in their honor.
The next big moment for the cross-country cyclists will be at 1 p.m. ET Monday, when they’ve been invited to be present with Obama at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
“It will be an incredible experience to meet the President, but we’re there to honor the Vietnam guys and say thank you,” Barrientos said. “We didn’t take care of those guys when they came back, even though they did so much for us and for our country. … This is why I wanted to sign up for this trip. I just wanted to thank those guys for everything.”
To get help for yourself or someone you love who may be at risk for suicide, see the blue box above for a hotline number and other resources.
To learn more about Jeremy Staat’s charitable organization, the Jeremy Staat Foundation, or to book a free speaking engagement at a school, visit TheJeremyStaatFoundation.org.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints