April 18, 2012
By Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord
While in Afghanistan in 2010, a roadside bomb attack took away both of Aaron Schaefer’s legs, but now, just two years later, a bicycle is making him feel whole again.
“It’s a freedom adventure,” said the Everett, Wash., native, loading his three-wheeled, hand-pedaled bike into his truck April 4, in the parking lot of JBLM’s Warrior Transition Battalion barracks. “I may not be able to run, but it’s another tool to get out.”
And the story is the same for the other wounded Soldiers who were there with him, most of whom are still serving on active duty at the WTB awaiting rehabilitation, surgeries and final decisions as to whether their injuries will end their military service.
For all of them, a cycling clinic hosted by the Wounded Warrior Project here, April 4-5, served as an opportunity to be active again — to move with purpose and feel free.
“It’s very enjoyable,” said Schaefer, who drove up from Gresham, Ore., 140 miles south of the installation to participate in the clinic. “It gives you a good sweat — a good workout.”
Schaefer served more than 11 years as an Army truck driver before a resupply mission in the Paktika Province of Afghanistan changed his life forever.
A semi truck in Schaefer’s convoy broke down, so the sergeant and his fellow Soldiers chained it up on a trailer and kept moving, only to hit an improvised explosive device, or IED, 550 meters later. The bomb detonated on Schaefer’s side of the vehicle and fractured the bones in his feet beyond repair.
Schaefer, who was serving with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at the time, would end his service in the military short. But it was during rehabilitation one year ago at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego that life introduced Schaefer to a new hobby.
“They had weekly (cycling) clinics, so we’d go out around San Diego and get our endurance up,” he said. “I did a half-marathon in San Diego and felt comfortable with that, so I did a full marathon.”
For a year he rode at least once a week, but the clinic on JBLM was his first official ride with a new cycle he had built by a shop in Tualatin, Ore.
Representatives from the Wounded Warrior Project coordinate 12 long-distance rides — called Soldier Rides — and five cycling clinics each year for wounded Soldiers and veterans around the world to participate in.
The organization teams up with builders of adaptive bikes to outfit Soldiers with demo cycles the first day of the clinic and, on the second, leads a ride across the installation.
The goal of the visit is simple and always the same: Give injured troops a way to be active again that fits their needs and a sense of accomplishment at the same time.
“Our main objective is to honor and power wounded warriors,” said Carlos Garzon, a Soldier Ride coordinator who came to JBLM for the clinic from the organization’s Jacksonville, Fla., headquarters. “Cycling is my tool. I know from experience that I can bring a smile to anybody on a bike, regardless of what bike it is or what the injury is.”
The bikes most Soldiers use during the clinics are referred to as recumbent bikes — cycles that position the rider in a reclined, back-leaning manner. The riders, many of whom can’t use their legs to push, use their hands to drive the pedal crank instead.
Spc. Forrest Newman learned to ride one for the first time April 4. At first, he could barely keep the bike straight, but within a half-hour he was cruising around the lot, circling the group of outfitters and Soldiers with a wide grin.
“It felt great,” said Newman, a helicopter mechanic from the California Army National Guard who injured his left knee in May 2010 during training while mobilizing to deploy. “It honestly feels like I’m back to my normal self. I think I found something new to really do.”
Newman suffers from a patellar impingement, which causes his kneecap to run off track when he performs any kind of activity with his legs and makes his knee prone to frequent dislocation.
“Right now, it’s difficult for me to walk extended distances,” said the Miami native, who was always active but forced to give up running and football — two things he loved.
“I’ve always been into being active,” said Newman, who completed his year-long tour to Camp Taji, Iraq, despite his training injury but in the process seriously worsened the condition of his knee. “I’m an outdoorsy person. Sports — anything not inside a room and I’m fine. I need to find things I can do, because sitting still is not something I do well.”
But he just might have something in hand cycling.
“It made me feel better,” he said. “It put me in a better mood, just because I’m able to do something I didn’t think I was able to.”
The hand cycling intro was just one stop along the way for Capt. Michelle Maddin, whose efforts to find the right activity have been more of a journey.
Maddin, who came to the WTB earlier this year for rehab from the 5501st U.S. Army Hospital in San Antonio, after a running injury, has given up two passions over the last decade: tennis and ultra marathons.
“In 2005, I kind of got my butt kicked all over the place by some 65-year-old guy, and then decided that maybe tennis wasn’t the sport for me,” she said. “That’s when I took up running. Now, maybe running just wasn’t the right sport to choose, so I’m trying to find something different.
“I think the cycling is probably going to do it.”
For Schaefer, cycling does the trick. It gives him a feeling he has no trouble explaining.
“The wind hits you, the speed of the bike is really easy to handle and it maneuvers pretty well,” he said, his cycle loaded into the bed of his truck. “You enjoy the air and the scenery around you — just being free and enjoying the ride. It puts the biggest smile on your face.”