Long road back

Veterans ride for healing and help

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JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Glenn Isaac Fretz, left, pulls himself into his wheelchair Wednesday as Darren "Dog House" Basinger holds the chair in place. Fretz, Steve Taylor, right, and three other combat veterans stopped in Coeur d'Alene to promote the 4,200-mile Long Road Home Project cycling trek they are participating in which travels from Seattle to Washington, D.C.

COEUR d'ALENE - After multiple deployments to the Middle East, southeast Asia and the Balkans, Ryan Creel was diagnosed with chronic post traumatic stress disorder. He was medically retired from the U.S. Army after 13 years of honorable service.

His treatment when he got home, he said, was "always meds, meds, and more meds."

Then, he got a bike.

"Cycling, in a way, it saved my life. I wasn't really into the whole skinny bike and Spandex, but it worked," he said Wednesday as he took a break in Coeur d'Alene following a 50-plus mile ride from Fairchild Air Force Base. "Get on a bike and everything just kind of floats away."

The 31-year-old Creel served as a U.S. Army Combat photographer during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Since 2010, he has used cycling as a form of therapy and hopes to inspire others with PTSD to overcome their challenges via exercise and peer-to-peer camaraderie.

"I'm huge on peer to peer therapy, helping each other through," he said.

It's why he's part of a 90-day, 4,200-mile ride across the country called "Long Road Home." Their journey began July 15 in Tacoma, Wash., and won't end until they reach Washington, D.C.

Creel is joined by four other veterans facing their own fights after leaving the battlefields on foreign countries behind.

"I love talking to other vets, helping other vets, find that peace that they're searching for," he said.

Garth Merrill, owner of Fleet Feet, greeted the riders Wednesday evening with a small party at his Sherman Avenue store.

He was happy to honor the military vets.

"Whatever we can do," Merrill said. "They've done so much for us."

Casey Miller, founder of the Long Road Home project, explained its three goals: Give veteran cyclists the opportunity to use the healing power of long-distance cycling to overcome their own war-related injuries; draw national attention to the fact that hundreds of thousands of service men and women face considerable challenges when returning home; and raise money for direct-service veterans charities.

Miller knows bikes.

Just last year, he rode across the country, from Portland, Ore., to Boston, Mass., after finding himself jobless, heart-broken and without a place to live.

"And two weeks later, I rode across the country, asking people how they find meaning in their lives. I was depressed and looking for some answers."

He found some.

His adventure took 71 days and 3,100 miles. He wrote a book of his experience, "Six and a Half."

It's about the six and a half characteristics all meaningful lives have in common, he said.

Miller, who has two master's degrees from Harvard University, wanted to do more for veterans. The Long Road Home aims to highlight their struggles.

By the end of their 90 days of cycling, he said 1,500 vets will have committed suicide, 270,000 cases of PTSD will have been reported since the inception of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 50,000 veterans will have returned home physically wounded since 2001, and 300,000 vets will spend a night on the street.

More must be done for veterans, Miller said.

Already, the Long Road Home has raised $68,000 on its way to its goal of $75,000.

"We'll make it," Miller said.

Perhaps even more important is the healing it's providing for the riders, whose cross-country journey is being chronicled by Kyle Hartnett, a filmmaker from Fairfield, Calif.

* Marie B. Tracy, 27, U.S. Air Force. She has served the military for 6 years and has just returned from Afghanistan where she worked as a logistics adviser. In riding across the country, Marie hopes to highlight the diversity of service people our military has, especially the lesbian, gay and bisexual community, and is riding for the service of all veterans.

* Glenn Isaac Fretz, 41, U.S. Army Ret. He served during Desert Storm, earning the Army Service Ribbon and The National Defense Service Medal. After an accident left him paralyzed in '94, Glenn struggled to rebuild his life. Thanks to the support of his two children and wife who he met in Guam, he has participated in more than 10 Wheelchair Games since '02.

* Colleen Bushnell, 39, U.S. Air Force Ret. She served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. After military sexual trauma in 2006, Colleen experienced homelessness, PTSD, and suicidality. Today, she is an advocate for all victims of assault and is riding to bring awareness about women in the military and single-parent veterans.

* Steve Taylor, 59, U.S. Air Force Ret. He was drafted to the military in 1971. He spent the next 26 years serving his country in tours as broad as the Noriega Conflict in Panama to both conflicts in Iraq. After an injury left him partially paralyzed in 2004, Steve spent years in recovery.

He said the ride, already, has been therapeutic from meeting friendly people and seeing beautiful places. Many, he said, have already offered help along the way.

"It's just amazing what's been done," Taylor said. "We're just having a great time seeing America."

He has been collecting names of military members injured or killed in combat, and plans to read them out loud when he arrives in Washington, D.C., along the way.

Taylor wants the people to be aware of the daily struggles veterans face when they come home.

"I'm riding for them," he said.

Tracy was all smiles as she stopped to chat outside Zip's in Coeur d'Alene. So far, the ride has been everything she hoped.

"It makes me feel like I served for good reasons," she said.

Like Taylor, she said the people and places have been a pleasure.

"After serving under don't ask, don't tell for 10 years, I just needed some open road to become more OK with myself," she said.

The woman who goes by Marty loves being able to ride each day, hang out with friends, write in her journal, and post pictures on line.

"You take it like that, and I find I can really appreciate life way more," she said.

Their travels have already helped with healing from the wounds of war. There are still miles to go, but Tracy is confident before they reach the end, the veterans can help each other win their personal battles.


Information: www.longroadhomeproject.com

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