TUSKEGEE, Ala. — A triple amputee, Tim Brown is cycling from Atlanta to New Orleans.
On Monday, Brown, along with 175 other injured veterans and their supporters, stopped at the Tuskegee National Historic Site as part of the Ride 2 Recovery Gulf Coast Challenge — a six-day, 470-mile bike ride from Atlanta to New Orleans. Ride 2 Recovery supports physical and psychological rehabilitation programs for injured veterans, featuring cycling as the core activity.
The fourth annual Gulf Coast Challenge, sponsored by UnitedHealthcare, included about 20 riders.
Brown, who served in Afghanistan as a Marine, said cycling allows him to take any frustration, anger or depression and "ride with like-minded individuals. Riding a bike keeps whatever stuff you're dealing with ... it keeps it down, keeps it from getting out of hand. It keeps you from getting down too low, from hitting rock bottom."
From indoor spinning training at military installations to multi-day, long-distance rides, Ride 2 Recovery helps injured veterans heal through the challenge of cycling long distances using hand cycles, recumbents, tandems and traditional road bikes. It serves to improve the health and wellness of veterans by helping to speed the recovery and rehabilitation process.
"We want to be a small part of returning them to health and a sense of well-being," said Glen Golemi, CEO UnitedHealthcare. "We have hundreds of our employees that make the ride a success. I'll be picking up with them in Mobile and riding through New Orleans with them for a couple of days.
"It's heartwarming and a tremendous honor to be with these true heroes. What's great about it, is they see the support of our country, of these volunteers who truly take an interest in their recovery and thanking them for their service."
Lt. Col. Robert J. Friend, a 95-year-old Tuskegee airman, was flown to Montgomery by Ride 2 Recovery with the intent to ride a bike especially built for him by the organization.
He has ridden previous one-day trips with Ride 2 Recovery.
"He was sidelined because the airline lost his luggage, which included his medication," said Sheri Goldberg, Ride 2 Recovery spokeswoman. "He was unable to attend because he had to go to the (Montgomery) VA to pick up new medicine.
"He was looking forward to riding into the Tuskegee (National Historic Site) with the group."
Tuskegee airmen were America's first African-American military airmen who fought in World War II. Friend was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group and was stationed in Europe during WWII. He lives in Irvine, California. Friend is the oldest surviving member of his unit.
While some of the riders on the Gulf Coast Challenge are amputees, some deal with mental health issues, and one with blindness.
Kathy Champion was in the Army serving in Iraq when a 2005 explosion left her blind in the left eye. After she returned home, a virus she picked up in Iraq took the sight from her right eye. In 2008, she was completely blind. Three years ago, she learned how to ride a bike for the first time.
For the Gulf Coast Challenge, she rode with her guide, Norma Laing. Both are from Gulf Port, Florida.
"For me, it's a lot of freedom," Champion, 50, said of the ride. "And yesterday? I got to help somebody. Because I'm on a tandem, people think that because you're blind, you can't do anything. But this guy let us pull him, on a tandem. He grabbed on to our rear spoke, and we pulled him.
"For me, for the first time, I didn't feel useless. It was kinda cool. It was actually a lot of cool."
Laing said Champion is "the power, and I'm the eyeballs in this outfit. For me, this means freedom. It also means the opportunity to help others, because this is what we do."
Ride 2 Recovery provides a sense of family to healing heroes, said Joe Coddington, director of event operations with the organization.
"When they are wounded, they are put with a group that is healing," he said. "With any physical activity, stress and emotional stress can be relieved through activity."
Cycling, Carmen Vega said, "is the best medicine."
Retired from the Army, Vega said without exercise, she would likely be on medication.
"I wish people knew how good cycling was," said the 49-year-old Fort Knox, Kentucky, resident, who deals with depression. "This is the best way to medicate yourself. If I wasn't doing this, I would probably be taking three or four pills, honestly.
"I'm a triathlete. Running is the best thing. If you take that from me, I might as well be dead."
Brown, 31, who lost both of his legs and an arm in Afghanistan after stepping on two separate IUDs, picked up cycling in 2012, about a year after his injuries.
"With much intensive thought and work ... we came up with the idea of riding," he said. "Through Ride 2 Recovery, I did my first challenge in 2013, riding from San Antonio to Fort Worth, Texas."
The Gulf Coast ride is his seventh challenge.
"Without cycling ... I wouldn't be pleasant to be around," he said.