Gold Star Families Define Cross-Country Bicycle Ride for Marine Veteran

By Richard Rhinehart

Triangle, Virginia, November 1, 2013 – At the end, it was the people who defined her cross-country journey. On October 25, retired Marine Major Jennifer Marino rolled her bicycle onto the grounds of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, completing her 77-day Gold Star Ride.

Jennifer Marino in Hermann, Missouri.

Major Jennifer Marino in Hermann, Missouri during the Gold Star Ride. Photograph courtesy Jennifer Marino.

With 2,590 miles, five flat tires and more than 500 hours of riding across deserts, mountains, plains, woodlands and communities large and small behind her, Marino remembers most the families she met with during her journey.

“I had planned to meet with about 52 families before we departed on the trip,” Marino recalled, “But I had a chance to meet with groups of families along the way, as well as added visits once the trip was underway. I think I probably met somewhere between 80 and 90 families, including lots of dads and some siblings as well.”

Riding in the rain in Flagstaff.

Riding in summer rain showers in Flagstaff, Arizona. Photograph courtesy Jennifer Marino.

Planning her ride to honor the Gold Star families who experienced the loss of a son or daughter through military service, Marino took a circuitous route from her departure at Southern California’s Camp Pendleton August 10.

Visiting 20 states from California to Pennsylvania during her ride, Marino sometimes rode by herself, followed by her mother in a support vehicle. Often, she would have a companion or small group ride with her; the largest being in the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, North Carolina on October 23. “We attended the Beirut Remembrance Ceremony at the Beirut Memorial that morning, and then we did a 30-mile group ride in honor of the 30th anniversary” of the 1983 bombing, said Marino. “We had 17 riders in our group that day, a mixture of active duty service members, veterans, and civilians from the Jacksonville community.”

Van Brinson and Jennifer Marino.

World T.E.A.M. Sports’ CEO and President Van Brinson joins Jennifer Marino for a day of riding at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Photograph courtesy Van Brinson.

“Jennifer’s trip is a testament to the impact that one person can have on the lives of others,” said Van Brinson, World T.E.A.M. Sports CEO and President, who rode with Marino in Camp Lejeune. “We at World T.E.A.M. Sports are proud to have been a small part of her ride.”

Spending evenings and mornings across the country with Gold Star Mothers and their families, Marino learned the stories of the servicemen and women who gave their lives in active duty. Often, she shared these stories through her Facebook ride page.

“If we stayed with a family the night before, it generally took us several hours to say goodbye, usually after breakfast,” Marino recalled. “Saying goodbye to these families after bonding with them was tremendously difficult, and rather emotional. It was never quick.”

Deb Austin

Gold Star Mother Deb Austin at her son’s memorial stone. Photograph courtesy Jennifer Marino.

Following a day of riding, Marino would try to arrive at a family’s home prior to dinner, to avoid having the family wait for her. “I never got enough rest on this trip … there simply were not enough hours in the day,” Marino said.

Raising funds to cover some of her ride expenses, Marino is donating a significant amount to the non-profit American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., the national organization of mothers who lost a son or daughter in active military service. “I’d like to be able to give at least $2,000 to the organization.”

Inspired by World T.E.A.M. SportsSea to Shining Sea cross-country bicycle rides with disabled veterans, Marino retired from 15 years of active duty in early August. Following a quick prologue in Pennsylvania, she traveled west to California to begin her ride.

“There were so many amazing moments” during her journey, she recalled. One of the most memorable was in early September in northern New Mexico. “We had stayed the night at a ranch owned by the Christmas family. Celeste and I rode our bikes 53 miles that day, stopping in the town of Springer for breakfast with Becky Christmas and my mom, and then continuing on to Cimarron, where we jumped in the car and drove to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial near Angel Fire. We had a tour courtesy of the president of the memorial foundation’s board, and we had a late lunch with Becky and another Gold Star family, Pappy and Carol Harris. The entire day was just incredible, from the beautiful blue sky and warm sunshine of our ride, to the breakfast we shared, to the visit at the memorial, to the conversation with two families.”

Jennifer Marino at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial near Angel Fire.

Jennifer Marino (center, in pink) at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial near Angel Fire, New Mexico. Photograph courtesy Jennifer Marino.

With her journey across America now complete, Marino began a new position October 31 as the Executive Director for the Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness in Bluemont, Virginia. “This retreat is a place for wounded warriors and their families to come and spend some time away from a hospital setting, in a serene environment that enables respite, recreation, relaxation, and reconnection with one another. It’s my dream job.”

Marino also notes she has plans to write a book about her Gold Star Ride in the coming months. “But right now, I need a break!”

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

National Museum of the Marine Corps.

The end of the Gold Star Ride at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Virginia. Jennifer Marino is in the center. Photograph courtesy Jennifer Marino.