Participating Veterans Bring Meaning to Face of America Ride

by Richard Rhinehart

Arlington, Virginia, April 22, 2013 – Participants in the April 26-28, 2013 Face of America ride from World T.E.A.M. Sports will come from 39 states from coast to coast, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and several Canadian provinces. These athletes include disabled veterans, active duty military, retired military, civilians and youth. For some participants, this will be their third or fourth ride; for others, this is their first opportunity to ride the Arlington to Gettysburg, 110-mile route.

All participants ride together in the Face of America for a common cause – to honor and respect military veterans, particularly those who gave so much in their service. There are many veterans who left their service to their country with a physical or mental disability as a result of attacks, accidents, and illness. We all share the same road with these honored individuals.

Here is a sampling of some of the more than 100 veterans with disabilities who will be participating in the ride:

Gina Utegg and Geoff Moulton.

Geoff Moulton (left) and Gina Utegg (center) finish at the 2012 Face of America ride in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photograph courtesy Geoff Moulton.

Geoff Moulton – U.S. Army, 1967-1970. “I first rode in the Face of America four years ago as a means of giving back and assisting my fellow disabled veterans. Fortunately my disabilities are not as severe as others and I am able to provide assistance. I have made many friends over the years at this event and am inspired by all who participate,” said Moulton.

Kristine White – In 2006, Kristine made the decision to serve her country and entered the Army. Sent to Fort Leonard Wood for Basic Training, she did well in training, five weeks in though, she experienced an injury to her right foot. This injury was ultimately the cause of her discharge late in the same year. After receiving an honorable discharge in late 2006, Kristine returned to her hometown, and attempted to pick up her life and move on. Feeling the disappointment and guilt over not being able to continue her military service, she began physical exercise. In 2011, while completing her Mission Continues Fellowship, Kristine found out about the Face of America Ride and attended. “Considering that it was my first time on a bike in over four years, that first year I think I completed 30 miles, last year… I did at least 67,” said White. “This year, I plan to ride what I rode last year, plus whatever else my body will push limits of doing.”

Duane Wagner – “The difference between a successful person and others is not the lack of strength or knowledge, but rather the lack of will,” said Wagner. Enlisted in the Marines in 1965, Wagner went to Vietnam and served as an advisor to a Quang Tri village as security and forward intelligence. “On the morning of May 15, 1967,” Wagner recalls, “My camp was attacked and overran by enemy mortar and small arms. I received gunshot wounds and was hit by an enemy hand grenade, which blew off both legs below the knees. Though severely wounded, I dragged myself and another Marine to safety. For that, I received the Silver Star.” Years later, Wagner started riding and racing bikes and won several National Championships, as well as the Arete Award from ESPN and the U.S. Olympic Committee. “I do not have a disability,” Wagner said, “I have an inconvenience.”

Duane Wagner

Duane Wanger at a recent Challenged Athletes Foundation event. Photograph courtesy Duane Wanger.

Sarah Bonner – A1C Sarah Bonner served in the United States Air Force from 2004 to 2006. She was a Financial Apprentice and was stationed at Ramstein Air Force. Sarah was injured in basic training and developed Chronic Bilateral Primary Lymphedema in her legs and also injured her feet while in the military. Since retiring from the military, Sarah returned to southwest Virginia. Currently living in Roanoke, Virginia, the 32-year-old attends Radford University. She will graduate in 2014 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work, go on to graduate school, and hopes to work with veterans. “Riding a bike provides me a way to exercise and freedom from the injuries I deal with and forget that I’m disabled,” said Sarah. “Riding with veterans allows me to connect with my brothers and sisters and a chance to be part of a team again. Just as we enter the military as individuals, we quickly become a team. On this ride, we come as individual veterans from all over the United States, and we unite again as a one team.” The Face of America is an opportunity for Bonner to connect with other veterans and continue her recovery from PTSD, depression and anxiety. “I’m looking forward to making new friends and reconnecting with old friends and challenging myself. I ride for those that are unable to ride and for those who have left us too soon. I’m also riding to honor the city of Boston and those injured and the three young lives lost.”

Daw Dekon – Originally from the new country of Southern Sudan, Dekon was one of the thousands of the “lost boys” as reported in CBS News’ 60 Minutes news program. “I was brought over to the U.S. in 2001 from the refugee’s camp in Kenya,” Dekon reported. “I joined the United States Army in 2005 and went to Iraq three times.” His first time in riding with the Face of America, he reports he is pleased to participate. “I’m very honored to be part of this significant event as it brings together veterans across the nation. I thank you for what you do for veterans. By the way, I’m not just from Southern Sudan, but a citizen of the greatest nation on the face of the earth, the United States of America.”

Grayson “Norris” Galatas – “I served in the Army for 27 years, including four years spent at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C.,” said Galatas. “I was serving in Iraq, the Iscondoria area with the 155th Separate Armored Brigade from the state of Mississippi from January 2005-April 2005. I was injured by an IED while driving a Hemmit to recover a vehicle that had just minutes before been destroyed by an IED, killing one and injuring three.” Now retired, Galatas looks to celebrate his “New Life Day” each April 19. “I was injured severely by the blast and was taken to the combat area support hospital in Baghdad. I was than operated on and received over 54 units of blood and would endure 18 surgeries in total. The injuries limit my ability to walk due to nerve damage to my right leg and foot. I also am limited to what I can now lift and suffer nerve damage pain on a continuous basis.”

Paul A. Wolf – “Being knocked down doesn’t mean you can’t get up,” said Wolf, a retired USMC Sergeant. “Having spent three years in the hospital from wounds received during the Vietnam Era in the China Sea off the coast of the Philippines, I used to beat myself up a lot not knowing there were others that had the same stresses coming home. Public response didn’t help things back in the 70’s and 80’s.” A member of the Vietnam Vets Motorcycle Club, Wolf remembers his recovery after Vietnam. “Being bedridden almost the entire time. PTSD and numerous operations, re-attachment of parts of my right leg.” Wolf decided to participate in the Face of America ride after training and meeting his friends Michael Manning, Bill Czyzewski and Mike Claver in the 2012 Sea to Shining Sea ride from World T.E.A.M. Sports. “They piqued my interest by challenging me to get involved. No more needed to be said. I am a Marine!”

Brian Birch – Medically retired from the Coast Guard owing to Lyme Disease, Lieutenant Brian Birch reports he has been on two wheels “whether motorized or pedal powered since I could barely walk.” Following four years of treatment for his illness, Birch has hope that he can regain strength and mobility. “This ride will help me prove to myself, and to others with similar disabilities, that the disease does not own me. My spirit is still alive and strong within me,” he said. “The ride is also for the people who have supported me. When I cross the finish line, I’ll be thinking, ‘Thank you Wife, thank you family, thank you all, I can ride again.’”

Adam McCann – A former member of the U.S. Marine Corps, McCann was wounded in combat on April 24, 2005 while serving in Iraq. The Oberlin, Ohio native took shrapnel from two explosions to his neck and both legs. A recipient of numerous awards, including the Purple Heart, McCann currently serves on the Board of Directors for the USO of Northern Ohio.

Angel Vazquez

Angel Vazquez at a recent event. Photograph courtesy Angel Vazquez.

Angel Vazquez Mercado – New York native Sgt. Angel Vazquez Mercado lived most his life in Puerto Rico. Enlisting in the US Army at age 33 following the 9/11 attacks on America, Vazquez Mercado was deployed to several countries, including Honduras and the Dominican Republic before mobilizing for Iraq. In 2007, Vazquez Mercado was involved in three different explosions, a mortar attack and two IEDs, which required medical evacuation. During his medical treatment, he and his family moved to Pennsylvania, where his son was found to have Testicular Cancer. “He does not have cancer in his body now after long excellent treatment on Penn State Cancer Institute at Hershey,” Vazquez Mercado reported. Both are planning to participate in the 2013 Face of America Ride. “This as part of a challenge we proposed that we will achieve together and is something we have never done,” he said. “We believe that this activity will be very good for both to continue healing and improving our medical conditions and trust that God will never ever let us go through this condition and situation again that almost kill us almost simultaneously.”

Glenn Goulet – A participant from the 2012 Face of America and World T.E.A.M. Sports’ 2012 Sea to Shining Sea cross-country ride, Glenn Goulet is pleased to be reunited with friends and other disabled veterans. “Being able to meet other veterans and share stories along the way is also a great way for me to deal with PTSD and my injuries,” he said. “I can no longer run or compete in other sports, but I can still ride my bicycle. There is no race on these events and there are plenty of people who care enough to teach you a few technics to make your ride more enjoyable.” Goulet has advice for his colleagues new to the ride. “I hope that many new riders on the 2013 ride are able to make friends and form a bond with your brothers and sisters of the armed forces that have served their country. Take the time to share your experiences with others from your hometowns and disabled veterans from your area.”

Marina Libro – A former Massachusetts police officer, Marina Libro was a member of the Army Reserve and active duty for 12 years. She retired on full disability as a result of various illnesses and injuries in January 2011. Discovering cycling as a part of her rehabilitation, she began riding on various challenges and rides. “I started to surround myself with soldiers and other people who made the same mistakes as me…but it was no big deal,” she recalled. “I wasn’t the only one standing around with a blank look on my face wondering why I was there, or seen backtracking because I went the wrong way again, or taking a picture of the sign board with the nightly instructions on it because I can’t remember.” Libro has a positive attitude toward participating in events. “I get to really work hard at something again and challenge my body both mentally and physically and see a positive result from it. I get to work in a team environment again as well … and I had to let myself be helped, which was one of the hardest things I had to learn to do in a very long time.” With her own adapted recumbent to use for training and in rides, Libro is appreciative of her mobility. “That bike is more than my life, it’s my soul. I know it is. People say you can’t see your soul, but I can every time I look at my bike.”

Marina Libro

Marina Libro at a Memorial Day, 2012 ride with Ride2Recovery. Photograph courtesy Marina Libro.

Kerry Conway – “This is my second Face of America ride,” said Sgt. Kerry Conway, who spent 11 years in the military, five years in active duty with the US Air Force. Conway also served in the active reserve. “I have a brain injury and two spinal cord injuries – the first from a fall off a cliff in Cuba during a search and recovery mission, the second from being shot down on the way back from Afghanistan,” Conway said. “Upon my return, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and seizures caused by my brain injury, but like I tell everyone, there is no ‘Dis’ in my ability, it’s just different.” Conway has a positive attitude. “Never give up, never give in, and never surrender. But above all, know it takes more strength to ask for help than it does to give it.”

Lance Abernethy – Joining the military to “see the world, experience life and protect the way of life that I have always known,” retired Master Chief Petty Officer Lance Abernethy from the US Coast Guard said he has always been active. In April 2009, Abernethy was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. “As a result of the cancer surgery, I developed a heart condition,” Abernethy recalled. “I had heart surgery in November 2012 to correct this issue. The struggles to take back control of your life and body from something you had no control over is enlightening and challenging. Many of our fellow military members have to work to regain control of their lives from something they had no control over. Their spirit is reflected in the efforts of everyone in their lives and today in this ride.” Looking forward to the Face of America, Abernethy said “I ride today in honor of those who have gone before, as a guide to those who will follow and to support those regaining control of their lives. You are not alone.”

Michael Tilman – A member of Tyler Hamilton’s Team on the Face of America, Michael Tilman is a Master Sergeant still on Active Duty, stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia. Just returned from a tour in Kuwait, he has been deployed to Afghanistan twice and once to Iraq. Retiring in January 2014 from the Army, Tilman has served for over 19 years. “Participating in the Face of America Ride means the world to me and my family,” said the first-time participant. “Not only do I get to be a member of a wonderful team; I also get to represent Veterans from across this great country while raising awareness for those who have sacrificed so much!”

Michael Tilman

Michael Tilman and his new bicycle, 2013. Photograph courtesy Michael Tilman.

Bill Czyzewski – A past participant of Face of America and World T.E.A.M. Sports’ 2012 Sea to Shining Sea cross-country ride, Bill Czyzewski is a 64-year-old Vietnam Veteran. “I was with the 11th Armored Cavalry (Blackhorse) from 1969-1970,” Czyzewski recalled. “I was shot on March 1, 1970. I didn’t do too much for about 40 years, ’till a friend of mine turned me on to the hand-crank bicycle.” Known as “Mr. Bill,” Czyzewski has participated in numerous events with World T.E.A.M. Sports and Ride2Recovery. “I am really looking forward to doing this year’s Face of America,” he said. “It is a great ride with some great camaraderie with a lot of great people.”

Victor Cramer – A US Marine Corps Veteran, Victor Cramer served from 1977 to 1983. A helicopter mechanic, Cramer recalls “I was the crew chief for Presidents Carter and Reagan.” Following his retirement from the service, Cramer has worked as a civil servant for the Department of Defense. “I’m currently the Lead Contacting Officer for Research and Development Division at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Headquarters located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia,” he notes. Riding the Face of America for his first time, Cramer notes he had heard about the ride from a fellow Marine. “I am riding to support my fellow disabled veterans and raise money to provide support long after the ride.”

Jim Collins – Serving in the US Army from 1968 to 1971, including two years in Vietnam, Jim Collins reports this is his first Face of America ride. “We can overcome any obstacle that stands in our way and gives us time to reflect on our fallen comrades,” he reports.

JD Caraway – Returning from his deployment to Afghanistan, JD Caraway reports he received startling news. “I learned of the silent killer sitting in brain,” he recalled. “I received the news on April 9, 2010 – one day after my 42nd birthday – that I have a cancerous brain tumor. I would have surgery two short weeks later to determine the grade and type of tumor. Early diagnosis via MRIs indicated it was extremely aggressive; however, I would be given some good news if you can get good news after pathology reports returned which indicated it was a grade II tumor called an ‘oligodendroglioma’.” Undertaking 12 cycles of chemotherapy, Caraway displayed no side effects. “I went 15 months with no change in the tumor but recently found out it is starting to show some subtle signs of activity. Surgery is being considered again with a round of radiation to determine if the grade of the tumor has increased which would make me eligible for additional treatment options (clinical trials).” Despite the potential challenge, Caraway remains positive. “I show no visible signs at this stage and keep a very positive attitude based on the fact that I wake up each morning. I’ve been blessed to be married for 22 years to my very supportive wife Kristine. We have two beautiful children – Maddie and Jake – in college. I’ve transitioned to industry with a great company and live each day to the fullest.”

Daniel Wermuth – As a young cyclist in 1973, Daniel Wermuth enlisted in the Navy and took his bike on board his ship. He was able to ride all over the world. “In October 1974,” Wermuth remembers, “I was working onboard in a ship harness hanging over the signal bridge. The bracket broke and I fell 30 feet to the main deck, breaking my back. My dream of riding from Coast to Coast was gone.” Retiring from the Navy, he went into law enforcement. In 1987, he retired from his second career and served as the owner/operator of his family photography studio in Florida for 22 years. “The years caught up with me and I had to close the studio, let go the staff of good people, and was basically confined in bed for two years from the old injury. “Depression and Diabetes drives one to a very dark place,” he said. “In October of 2012, I met a group of Veterans and a World T.E.A.M. Sports rider who told me just to get a damn bike and ride. With help learning how to ride again and how to set up a bike, I am an avid rider again. Thanks to that old Vietnam Veteran, Mr. Bill, who rode Sea to Shining Sea last year and encouraged me to just do it. In the last year, I have ridden over 7,000 miles in training and completed four Challenge rides with the Ride2Recovery.”

Gina Utegg – Gina Utegg has long participated in World T.E.A.M. Sports events. Originally introduced to the non-profit through volunteering at Boston-area events, she participated in her first Face of America in 2009. “It opened my life up for so many more positive athletic accomplishments, successes, memories and friendships,” she reported. Representing the organization in the 2011 Nautica Malibu Triathlon in 2011, she also participated in the 2012 Adventure TEAM Challenge in Colorado. “Doing so well in the challenge and being a member of the first all-female team was likely one of the most amazing athletic events I have ever done.” “Being someone who has absolutely benefited and is humbled by the life-altering events that WTS sponsors and which help so many people,” Utegg encourages more participation in events by both disabled and able-bodied persons.

Maria Mietzner – Retiring in 2011 after 22 years of service with the US Navy, Maria Mietzner was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress in 2009. In addition, she has had an orthopedic injury to her left knee. “Participation in Face of America will assist me gaining and sustaining strength, both physically and mentally,” Mietzner reports. “I am looking forward to sharing in camaraderie with my fellow brothers and sisters in Service.”

Harry Carr

Harry Carr riding his hand cycle at a recent event. Photograph courtesy Harry Carr.

Harry Carr – Participating in his first Face of America ride, Harry Carr is visually impaired owing to a service connected Neurological condition. From New London, New Hampshire, the 50-year-old reports he has not driven a vehicle for more than ten years. “It was just nine months ago that a volunteer from the Boston VA, and now my cycle partner/FOA Team Coach Bill Hamilton, noticed that I really enjoyed cycling,” remembers Carr. “Bill has been instrumental and inspiring in my recumbent cycle activities.” An adaptive skier and kayaker, Carr participated in an August 2012 kayaking adventure along Montana’s Yellowstone River. “For me, the Face of America Ride means ‘Freedom, Pride and America’,” said Carr. “As a disabled veteran and participant, I will ride proud in this incredible event that honors my fellow wounded veteran brothers and sisters.” Carr is a nine year Air Force veteran.

David L. Santamore – A US Marine Corps Vietnam combat veteran, David Santamore lost his left leg in a 2005 accident. “I see it as a Temporary pain in the butt, while I figure out how to do whatever it is I want to do,” Santamore explains. The native, 59-year-old Vermont resident is active in many sports, including alpine and Nordic skiing, wheelchair basketball, kayaking and hand cycling. “I have been looking for a goal that I could get on fire for,” Santamore reports. “I believe this is it.”

Jeff Henson – A participant of three Face of America rides, Jeff Henson has also participated in several events from World T.E.A.M. Sports. In 2009, he kayaked the Pacific coast of Washington state and British Columbia in the Coastal Team Challenge. In 2012, he rode a bicycle across North America as a member of the Sea to Shining Sea ride. “I had basically given up on life,” Henson said, “But thanks to Lon Dolber and Jeff Messner, I have been able to live a full and unbelievable life the last five years.” Henson, a Heflin, Alabama resident and Army veteran, is blunt about his participation in events. “I truly think I am alive an well today because of World T.E.A.M. Sports.”

Chris Levi

Chris Levi at work. Photograph courtesy Chris Levi.

Zuleika Cruz Pereira – A native of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Zuleika Cruz Pereira medically retired from the US Air Force in 2010 owing to injuries she sustained while in service in Iraq. “Everyone calls me Z,” Pereira said, “Before I served in the Air Force, I also served in the Army for four years where I deployed twice, once in 2003 and 2005-2006.” Volunteering to deploy a third time to Iraq while with the Air Force, she recalls her accident. “One day I was working in a warehouse doing a two man job by myself and a 75 pound box crushed me. Also, when I fell, I hit my head and I lost consciousness. I didn’t report it until my supervisor noticed that my back was giving up and my leg was going numb and I couldn’t walk.” Flown to Landstuhl, Germany and then to the United States, she reports her injuries: “I’m diagnosed with Chronic PTSD, mTBI, anxiety, insomnia, bipolar disorder, depression, neck/lumbar degeneration, neck/lumbar disc bulging, sciatica nerve problems, migraines, ringing in the ears, among other conditions.” Competing in the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs this year, Pereira reports that adaptive sports is a huge part of her life, and helps in her recovery process. “This is my first event with World T.E.A.M. Sports and I’m very excited about it.”

Chris Levi – Joining the Army Infantry in February 2004, Chris Levi was stationed in Fort Polk, Louisiana. Losing both of his legs above the knee in a March 17, 2008 accident, he is participating in this first event with World T.E.A.M. Sports. “My participation in the Face of America ride means to me that I can remain an athlete and continue to strive for physical, and mental, achievements,” Levi said.

Michael Manning – A participant in the 2012 Sea to Shining Sea ride from World T.E.A.M. Sports, Michael Manning served with the U.S. Marine Corps. Returning from Iraq in 2003 with mental health issues, Manning found he was in trouble. Rehabilitating in a VA hospital in 2010, a close friend, Thomas Ederette, suggested he take up bicycling. He did, and found the sport greatly helped him with his physical and mental challenges. His 2012 cross-country ride provided an opportunity for Manning to see the country he defended in his service.

Richard Rhinehart serves as Director of Communications for World T.E.A.M. Sports.