photo by Grant Miller/the George W. Bush Presidential Institute

A Triumphant Ride

A celebration of our soldiers, their service and continued recovery

By Trae Thompson

CRAWFORD, Texas — Cheers erupted as they walked off the bus.

Everyone stopped what they were doing to applaud the men and women who had arrived. It lasted over a minute. The second day of a three-day ride was set to begin, but this was far more than just a typical bike ride. It was a celebration of America’s finest.

Approximately 20 men and women from around the country were selected to participate in the fifth annual W100K. The three-day, 62 mile mountain bike ride was for former U.S. soldiers injured while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Leading the way each day was former President of the United States George W. Bush, who hosted the private event at his Prairie Chapel Ranch.

As America celebrates July 4th, this year’s ride was a testament to those who endured hell, but remained resilient. Over the course of three days they found not only immense joy, but also healing.

“Here you’re riding with somebody that has an amputation, or traumatic brain injury,” said Scott Neil, one of this year’s participants. “You start to forget about your own slight miseries, your own physical inadequacies and just go for it.”

***

Everyone was quiet at first.

As the bus took them out to the ranch on the first morning, soldiers spent time getting to know each other. They talked about their backgrounds. Wives talked with each other about their experiences with their husbands.

A total of 6,758 servicemen were killed in Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Statistics from the Congressional Research Service also show that a total of 51,986 soldiers were injured in those wars.

There were plenty of benefits for soldiers who participated in this event. It was a chance for them, on one hand, to reconnect with the outdoors. If you’re in the military you like the outdoors and the outdoor lifestyle, Colonel Miguel Howe explained. They also got the opportunity to bond with other troops. Then came the individual part with riding.

The course unfolded over all types of terrain. Some of it included twisting, winding stretches through open fields. Riders also got to shoot up and down a hill, ride over a bridge and a plateau.

Photo by Grant Miller/The George W. Bush Presidential Institute

“You have to focus. You have to focus your body, your mind and concentrate,” said Howe, Director of the Military Service Initiative at the George Bush Institute. “You talk to some of these guys, and they’ll tell you when you’re out there on the trails you feel at peace and reconnected and grounded. Even though it’s very dynamic and interactive. You have to be focused and engaged.”

The pace wasn’t easy, either, but the President wanted it that way.

For those soldiers who suffered more serious injuries, it was difficult to keep up. Support riders on the course stayed with them. Pam Jackson, who maintains the trails and used to be Bush’s “bike mechanic”, has been with the race since its inception in 2011. She’s familiar with the challenges encountered by the riders.

“You see it on their faces. All that they’re thinking is, ‘I hope I can stay on President Bush’s wheel. I hope I can make this ride. I just want to stay with him,’’’ she said. “And then you kind of identify the warriors who may need a little more help. And everybody else does too. That second day it’s more, ‘How can I help my brother or my sister make it through this ride?’ So the focus is no longer can I stay with him, but can I help them so we can all stay together to stay with him.”

They would find a way. Their biggest supporter would cheer them on, too.

***

There’s another side to Bush when he’s out on the trails.

Soldiers had a hard time relaxing around their Commander-in-Chief at first. Bush recognized the nervousness and tried to help them.

He would jaw with the riders on the trails and fire off one-liners. He was also the one hurrahing them. During the second day of their 30-mile ride, he could be heard up front on his #43 bike screaming “Ya baby!” and “That’s what I’m talking about!” Bush bragged about how fit the soldiers were. Yes, he admitted, he pushed them hard.

“And I was the guy breathing hard in the end,” Bush cracked.

Photo by Paul Morse/The George W. Bush Presidential Institute

Jackson got to see Bush’s stamina on display when they first met six years ago. Early one morning at Cedar Hill (TX) State Park, Jackson was fixing the hydraulic brakes on her bike. The Secret Service motorcade rolled up and out jumped Bush, who has resided in the Dallas area following his presidency. Jackson recalled how friendly Bush was and how he immediately invited her to come ride with them. He then turned to the Secret Service and told them she’d be joining their group.

What started out as one lap turned into another. By the end of a third lap, Jackson was spent.

“This is my chance to give back to men and women who served,” Jackson said of the W100K. “It’s just a fantastic opportunity. What we see is what they’ve overcome. We’re not allowed to have a bad day. After seeing what they’ve overcome, there’s no obstacle we have to confront that we shouldn’t be able to overcome.”

Bush, who began mountain biking back in 2003, first discussed the idea for the race with a friend. In 2011, the inaugural race was held in Lajitas outside Big Bend State Park. The next year it moved to the Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas.

While he’s been out of office for six and a half years, Bush still remains a polarizing figure. In 2013, comedian Bill Maher said it was “nauseating” that Bush was a part of this race. Opponents will still argue that there was no evidence of WMD’s in Iraq. A 2004 report by the CIA claimed there were no weapons in the country, and that they’d been destroyed in 1991. However, the New York Times published a report last year that detailed from 2004 to 2011 how American troops and Iraqi troops found “roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs.”

Those troops who were at the ride still loved their Commander-in-Chief. They remained humble and when it came to serving their country again, they didn’t waiver. They’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“You know, I hope they realize how appreciative I am and how honored I am to welcome them to the ranch,” Bush said. “I think you’ll find they’re a lot more relaxed and willing to tease the President a lot more than they were initially.”

***

There was a time for riding and laughs, but soldiers also got to open up.

After the first day of biking 12 miles, riders went into town for a dinner hosted by the President and First Lady Laura Bush.

Talking about what they’d been through wasn’t a high priority for a lot of the soldiers. Bush had to pry it out of them.

“They talked about it only if I asked them,” Bush said. “And I’m not sure they would’ve talked about it — I know they wouldn’t have talked about it — had I not asked them.”

Adam McCann, one of this year’s riders, saw how some of the others needed to talk. Until then, some had never had this chance. Now they had a release. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

McCann, a 29-year-old former Lance Corporal in the Marines, was injured in April, 2005, while serving in Iraq. He took shrapnel from a mortar strike to his neck and both legs. A jagged scar is still visible on the right side of his neck. His left Achilles was cut in two places and right anterior tibialis was also severed.

McCann was at Camp Pendleton recovering when he met a Vietnam vet who asked him if he cycled. He rode bikes as a kid like everyone else, McCann told him. The vet explained the functions of the bike, the fluid motion involved and how it would help with his injuries. McCann began cycling, then lost 80 pounds. Last year he discovered mountain biking.

“I love it cause with mountain biking you have to focus a lot more,” McCann said. “There’s trees, there’s objects. You can’t lose focus. You have to be on it.”

Another rider, Staff Sergeant Spencer Milo, was injured in Iraq in 2008. He then developed a brain tumor and was given six months to live. Milo remained bedridden for seven months, then spent three months at the University of California San Francisco. Eventually he returned back to active duty and was sent to Afghanistan in 2010. In January of 2011, he was on patrol when a suicide bomber detonated within eight feet of him. Milo had shrapnel throughout his left side, face and also fractured three disks in his back.

Sarah Milo was just 19 when her husband was first injured and she was thrust into a caretaker role. He was comatose from the medication, she said, and in “a dark, dark hole.” The transition he’s made since left her beaming.

“Now to see him so lively and to see that light again…” she said. “I mean, this is the man I first met and married.”

All their stories left an impact.

“It’s just…it’s so powerful, to see what they overcome,” said Mark McKinnon, a longtime W100K volunteer and Austin resident. “This is a place where they can really come together and share their story, share their experience, and really help each other. You really get a sense of the brotherhood and sisterhood of these soldiers and how they help each other out.”

***

By the final day, the mood was definitely lighter.

“Today it was like kids camp,” Neil said.

On the final morning, the President and the riders biked 20 miles. Everyone rode in together one last time. A camaraderie had developed over the three days. These soldiers now got to become part of the Alumni Association that had formed for previous participants. This year, for the first time alumni also got to return and ride again.

“All these vets were hurt, all these vets volunteered,” Bush said. “They served, they got hurt and they refuse to allow their injury to hold them back. And they’re determined. They’re determined on the bike trail, and they’re determined to get better.”

Everyone mingled while lunch awaited under a huge tent. Some riders posed together for photos. Others waited for a chance to snap one with the President.

Neil had a different idea, though. Standing next to Jackson, the two hopped off their bikes and celebrated a different way.

They dropped and did push-ups.

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